Dada Shakespeare: Oakland Fun during the Plague

Lissa Tyler Renaud*

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised], by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, Jess Winfield; additional material by Reed Martin. Presenter: African-American Shakespeare Company, San Francisco; Artistic Director L. Peter Callender. Directed by Reed Martin. Premiere: Oct. 3, 2021, in San Francisco, California; re-mounted Oct. 9, 2021, in Oakland. Venue: outdoor stage at Jack London Square, Oakland, California, U.S.

“Right about now, we all need a laugh,” said L. Peter Callender, Artistic Director of San Francisco’s African-American Shakespeare Company. “This is the right time and the right place.”

Indeed. After more than a year of Zoom-only shows, we advanced uneasily to tortured months of theatres announcing their re-openings—”We’re Back!”—followed by cancellations, then postponements (this in-person show was planned for 2020), then increasingly involved protocols for joining or welcoming limited capacity audiences: masks, temperature checks, disinfected seating areas, cautions about restroom use, air purifiers, closed concession stands, proof-of-vaccination cards.

Early arrivals. Stage right of center. Photo: Lissa Tyler Renaud

Then, at last—a show to see, in the open air! Yes, we were in “distanced” folding chairs and distanced from the stage, but what a relief to be at a charmingly makeshift stage in the early October sunshine, enjoying the comfortable smell of the estuary at Oakland’s stunning Jack London Square waterfront, with other people. Gratefully, we stretched our legs, or set up picnics on the grass, and got ready (masks on) to laugh.

The show’s reputation precedes it. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised], the original creation of the Reduced Shakespeare Company (RSC), has enchanted the Shakespeare sophisticate and seduced the Shakespeare-phobe since the 1980s: just three actors play 75 characters in Shakespeare’s canon of 37 plays (give or take) in 90 minutes (more or less), in a loopy concatenation of puns, spoonerisms, double entendres, malapropisms, kooky rhymes and word associations, mixing Shakespeare’s pentameter with a kind of creeping nonsense and taking periodic flight into the beauties of the original verse. All this in a perfect storm of stupid wigs, ill-fitting costume pieces and dubious props, and all while making entrances and exits so fast they blur.

The 40-year, sprawling life of the play has included stage, television, radio, translations, books, audio and a slew of other Complete (abridged) shows (co-written with writer/performer/managing partner Austin Tichenor), in more states and countries, and at more prestigious venues (the White House; London’s West End) than you can shake a stick at. The materials on the company’s website offer a cornucopia of gobsmacked notices from the likes of The New York Times and The Times of London, reaching for descriptors: rollicking, madcap, stupendous, masterful, bawdy and (my favorite) anchorless joy, along with: wildly funny, gloriously funny and the funniest show.

Poster for the production

At the helm of this production was the multi-talented Reed Martin (RSC Performer/Writer/Managing Partner) who brings to this production top-tier backgrounds as an acclaimed-at-every-turn professional actor, director, writer and circus clown, as well as his work with this play since 1989. Even though the play’s script is the foundation for every production, what Martin crafted—incited?—here seemed pitch perfect for this particular, San Francisco-Berkeley-Oakland audience: In the Bay Area, fairly saturated with academics, the play’s “preeminent” expert on Shakespeare turned out later to be a fake—a “pre eminent” expert—and the opening, scrambled introduction, delivered book-report style from index cards “researched” on the internet, seamlessly conflated Shakespeare’s biography with Walt Disney’s. Shakespeare’s sixteen comedies are combined into one, all-purpose comedy (good for quarantine shortened attention spans); Titus Andronicus is played as a cooking show (just right for our over-the-top culinary lifestyle); the history plays become a football match, with the crown of England passed from team to team (rather like the story of our own sports teams and ballparks). Along with these, the show speaks to this Northern Californian area’s heightened political concerns: the play abounds in references with a light touch to issues of race, gender, sexual consent, same-sex kissing and more that speak directly to values that are cherished here by many.

But surely audiences everywhere recognize themselves in these, as well as in riffs tailor-made for them­­, and it’s easy to see how the overall show is so beloved worldwide. The pre-show, pre-flight airplane demo about exits and oxygen masks. A rap version of Othello. Hamlet and his friend Fellatio (Horatio), and the Ghost making his appearance as an old gym sock flung over a flat from behind. Romeo’s “Call me but love” line morphing into “butt love.” The re-cap of the whole show done at hyper-speed, including changes of costumes on their last legs, the actors hurling themselves on and off, game to do it for the audience’s pleasure—and just when they’re wrung out and breathless . . . they do the show backwards, at hyper-speed.

Publicity shot: Juliet uses a fellow actor’s head as a balcony for the scene with Romeo. In the production, the actor/balcony’s head was covered with cloth. (L to R): Gabriel Ross, Lijesh Krishnan, Tré Tyler. Photo: Mabel Jimenez

The show requires the stage actors of our imaginations. To begin with, along with needing a broad range of physical skills, they have to be able to handle Shakespeare’s language, which demands both bravura and prowess. Part of the audience’s fun is watching the actors balance on their high wire of techniques, moving within a whole complex of extremes and shifts in tone: now providing real commentary on the plays; now playing themselves as actors sorting out script matters and their relationships; now playing (or otherwise accounting for) Shakespeare’s own shifting characters, such as what we need from actors in Romeo and Juliet, its early scenes giddy with sexual promise and final ones so violent and sad. Imagine those changes within seconds of each other, the actors hitting their tragic and comic marks with precision. There are as many “straight” moments that devolve into comic ones as there are absurd moments that achieve authentic gravity, each needing its own pace. Now the actors’ actor-characters are confiding in the audience members like pals, now pulling their legs like tricksters. The play gives the impression that it features the breadth and depth of Shakespeare’s plays, but it’s the actors we get to know best.

One of the show’s greatest challenges for the actors is also a key to its charm: interaction with the audience. The play text gave the actors successful strategies for leveling the adult portion of the audience. They teased the Shakespeare know-it-alls with impossible questions about the plays, and let them fill in words for famous lines. The actors also put adults not familiar with Shakespeare at ease: sometimes, the actor-characters were flummoxed by the plays’ lines and stopped the show to figure them out on everyone’s behalf. These approaches gently discouraged snobbery.

Participatory young audience members (sadly unidentified). Seated at the front in the center aisle, at the required 15 feet from the stage. Photo: Lissa Tyler Renaud

Luckily, the inter-generational nature of the production meant there was material for young people, too. It’s not the first time I’ve learned from watching children watch a play, and this trio of snappy dressers (pink tennis shoes, pink crocs, pink flip-flops) had much to teach. From their perches at front center, they were nothing if not participatory: clapping to the rap, cheering victories, speaking up at every opening, eliciting responses from the actors (“No, do not play with knives at home, that’s not safe”; “Young lady, I don’t want you using that word!”). One of these petite darlings handed out Ophelia’s discarded flowers, sweetly blowing kisses. There are moments in the show itself for both boys and girls everywhere to provoke happy cries of “Eww!”: oven mitts sloppy-kissing and plenty of barf jokes.

One might argue that the play deserves more academic analysis. In the past, some critics have compared the show to panto or vaudeville, but the show has no singing or dancing, and I don’t find these associations apt. Certainly, the historical Dada comes to mind, with its spoofs of revered paintings and poems—notably Kurt Schwitters’ 1919 “Anna Blume,” a near-nonsense parody of a formal love poem. But if a wind-up Godzilla and meaningless necklace of plastic toy boats are what it takes to bind our fractured populations together, I say (from Twelfth Night): play on. 

*Lissa Tyler Renaud MFA Directing; PhD Theatre History/Criticism. Lifelong actress. Founder-Director, InterArts Training, based in Oakland. Has taught, lectured, published widely on theatre training, dramatic theory, the early European avant-garde, at major theatre institutions of Asia and around the U.S., in England, Mexico, Sweden, Russia. Founding editor, Wuzhen Theatre Festival, China and English-French Critical Stages, now board member. Co-editor, The Politics of American Actor Training (Routledge); invited chapter, Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky. Editor, Selected Plays of Stan Lai (U of Michigan P, pending). Senior Writer, Scene4; founder, “Kandinsky Anew” series.

Copyright © 2021 Lissa Tyler Renaud
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