The Quartos and friends in "These Paper Bullets." Photo: Michael Lamont.
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts...
I spent the last two weeks immersed in Shakespeare in Los Angeles, and authorship aside, he is nevertheless well-represented. There are currently at least three productions of Shakespearean plays and variations, each different, but united by creativity and inventiveness. Some touched my heart, others my mind. Some were more successful than others.
The three productions: "These Paper Bullets" at the Geffen, "Four Clowns Presents Hamlet" at ShakespeareLA headquarters near downtown and "Shakespeare's Last Night Out," a one-man show by Michael Shaw Fisher at Three Clubs Lounge, a charming old bar and theater in the gritty part of Hollywood, across the street from the Army/Navy store on Santa Monica and Vine hawking "Earthquake Supplies" with a sidewalk display.
Comparisons are inevitable and the productions could not be more different. At the Geffen, billed as a "modish ripoff of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing," "These Paper Bullets" is a full-on big money production with nineteen actors, music by Billy Joe Armstrong of "American Idiot" and Green Day fame and a set that nearly busts the boundaries of the Geffen's stage. The story, written by Rolin Jones, and directed by Jackson Gay, is set in mod-60's London. It centers around a boy band, The Quartos, punctuated by Armstrong's music which was deftly composed to be spot-on evocations of the Beatles' tunes. There are willing groupies, some star-crossed lovers, great costumes, for some odd reason a pair of bumbling police officers and plenty of sex and randy humor. While a lively romp played by a talented cast, I cared a lot more for John, Paul, George and Ringo in my youth than I did for the boy band onstage the other night. All the feather boas and miniskirts, nehru jackets and Beatles bobs did entertain, but beyond the great production, it left me cold and I felt the humor didn't really work. The production runs through October 18 at the Geffen.
Much more compelling despite its barebones production--a table and chair, one actor, one costume, a feather and a few lanterns--was Michael Shaw Fisher, who wrote and performed "Shakespeare's Last Night Out." The piece, played in a tiny theater (to under ten audience members on the night I was there) tells not only the story of what may have been William Shakespeare's last night, but his entire history, from his humble childhood as the son of a glover, through his play-writing years, with nods to his questionable authorship and details on the hows and whys of many of the plays he wrote. There is historical and personal background, with songs composed and artfully sung by Fisher. Indeed, it was an impressive performance, one that kept the audience totally engaged for the full 75-minute piece. I felt like even if I were the only person in the theater, Shaw would have played it no differently, giving it all he had, playing Shakespeare with humor, heart and honor. The play, which won several awards at the Hollywood Fringe Festival of 2015, including Best Solo Performance, will be playing Fridays and Sundays through November 1.
"Four Clowns Presents Hamlet" was also impressive in its way, making up for a tiny budget with creativity, ingenuity and talent. The company, trained in the movement of clowning, used their adept physicality in the production to find the humor in the usually tragic tale, and the set and costumes (by Alexandra Giron and Elena Flores) imaginatively embellished the talents of the actors.
Cast of "Four Clowns Presents Hamlet."
Hamlet, played with relentless lunacy by Andrew Eiden, was ably aided by Joe DeSoto as Laertes, Tyler Bremer and Dave Honigman as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Charlotte Chanler as a dotty Gertrude and Corey Johnson as the devious Claudius. Productions like these astound with their ability to create a world out of a few yards of fabric, a crown and a sword. Turner Munch adapted and directed the play, shortening the dialogue and using movement, humor and skill to speak where words did not. It was a delightful production, and a reminder that while much goes into making a great evening of theater, big budgets don't always mark the heights a production can attain. The production runs Friday and Saturday nights through October 10.