Fringe By Numbers: Day Three, "Shakespeare's Land of the Dead"

Day Three: 1:00 p.m. Time Slot

Show: Shakespeare's Land of the Dead Company:  Walking Shadow Venue:  U of M Rarig Center - Thrust Die Roll:  20 (Critical Hit!  I got to choose!)

In the event that I roll a 20 on the dice, I get to choose what show I see.  This is a little bit of wonderful in my system.  I started my day that way.  I chose to see a show set in Elizabethan England and involving zombies.

I know!  On the surface that sounds like it could be a huge success or a complete and utter failure.  Well, I was putting my money on the "huge success" side of the table because this production was by Walking Shadow, a group that came on the scene in 2004 and has been quite successful ever since.

I'm not sure why, but I'm noticing that there is a trend of the houses opening late.  If you give yourself only 5 minutes to seat an entire audience, oddly enough, you'll run out of time and the show will start whilst people are still coming through the door (quite noisily, I might add).

Two things made this show a challenge for me.  1) Said loud people coming in after the show had begun (Whatever happened to the whole "No Late Seating" rule?!); and 2) At least one of the actors in the first scene was ridiculously hard to understand.  The first scene, not unlike in many plays, was the most difficult with which to become engaged.  The actor playing Will Kemp (a former member of Shakespeare's acting company) used the high end of his vocal register for many of his lines.  Many actors learn in junior high or high school that the higher register voices often run sound together without proper enunciation.   Well, guess what was missing here.  The problem is that Kemp's lines set up much of the rest of the play and his conversation with Kate Braithewaite is essentially the first 3-4 minutes of the play.  If you can't make out what is being said, it makes it that much harder to adjust to the Elizabethan speech patterns in the dialogue.

Anyway, that aside, I found this show to be a brilliant application of Shake-speak.  John Heimbuch (the playwright as well as the actor portraying Shakespeare) captured the feel of the Bard's English language.  He filled the script with puns an wordplay that were worthy of old Will, as well.  Plenty of people have tried to do that over the years.  Some have accomplished it.  The one I remember is Corleone by David Mann.  Most have failed.  I try not to remember those ones ever.

This play is a theatre geek's paradise.  Every major player (both on stage and the court) of the time makes an appearance.  Richard Burbage, Francis Bacon, John Dee, and Queen Elizabeth all end up in the Globe Theater, which according to the script has just been finished and opened.  There are intelligently formed references to Shakespeare's likely Catholic faith (for which he could have been burned at the stake by his Queen), Bacon's potential for having written Shakespeare's plays, the Bard's double life in London and Stratford, John Dee's investigations into the world of the paranormal, and much, much more.  The writing is so tight and well-thought-out, that it managed to reference in one hour many of the things that I barely managed to fit into a 90-minute intro to Shakespeare class I taught at the Guthrie earlier this year.

So... the premise: A little argument is going on about Kemp having been thrown out of the company after he refused to stick to the script of Falstaff's death in Henry V.  Shakespeare wants Kemp to leave, but then all Hell breaks loose as a Zombie comes in attacks the company's costumer (also Burbage's love interest) and inflicts her with Zombie-hood.  The Globe becomes a quarantine.  Everyone who is anyone ends up there while the rest of London is destroyed by mobs of undead.  The rest must be seen.  It is beautiful and you must witness it to truly appreciate it.

The direction was wonderful.  Amy Rummenie put quite a show together.  Joseph Papke shined as Sir Francis Bacon.  He took the stage and commanded it much as his character took command of the ever-more-chaotic situation on stage.  Interwoven throughout the rapidly deteriorating crisis situation, Bacon tries to convince Shakespeare to act as if he has written a play ("Falstaff in Love") which was actually penned by Sir Bacon.  This story arc is quite satisfyingly played out by Papke, Heimbuch and Ellen Karsten (as the Queen, as drama critic).

If this were a film, I would be raving about the editing.  Because it was a play, I'll just say that the timing was spot on.  For instance, the phrase "Could this day be any worse?" is the cue for zombies to burst on to the scene.  John Dee explains the essential role of the fool in Shakespeare's works.  And the foreshadowing of bringing Falstaff back from the dead for one more play makes the whole zombie theme work wonderfully well.

My favorite line:  spoken by Kate Braithwaite regarding Shakespeare, "See how the hairline withdraws to make room for the brain." 

Rating: d20 = "One of the Best"

Ten Word Summary:  Bacon and Bard struggle against undead using wit as weapon.

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