Geeky theater has started to hit its stride in the past few years, especially in the New York City indie theater scene. And while William Shakespeare’s oeuvre is a standby for thespians, you have to hand it to Gideon Productions for an inventive, fresh, hilarious take on performing the Bard: Their live-action reenactment of the comic book series Kill Shakespeare enjoyed a short run at the HERE Arts Center from March 1-5.
Of course, they had quite the imaginative source material to work with. Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery‘s 12-issue IDW series Kill Shakespeare delightfully mashes up and reimagines many of theater’s most famous and oft-performed characters under one conflict: The battle to either kill or defend the mythical deity “William Shakespeare.” Of course, this isn’t the Hamlet or Juliet you remember from high school lit class: He’s the brooding yet resourceful “Shadow King,” prophesied to end this war; she was saved from a dagger to the heart to become a revolutionary leader, albeit a mouthy and impulsive one. And on the villains’ side, we’ve got a sexy, corseted Lady Macbeth, who’s dispatched of her husband and who seduces her way through the men of the comic in her zeal to gain the power of Will’s quill.
Similarly, this production of Kill Shakespeare—following up the New York Comic-Con reading in 2012—brings together some of the indie theater scene’s finest, recruiting Gideon’s usual suspects and some of their favorite collaborators. (Full disclosure: I’m friends with several members of the cast.) I’ll confess that my knee-jerk expectation was to see HERE transformed into an Elizabethan stage, with costumes and balconies and battle scenes. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by the layout: The nine actors sit flanking a projector screen on which plays slices of panels from Del Col and McCreery’s comic. Providing the sound effects is lead foley Daryl Lathon, who also voices Othello; it’s mesmerizing to watch how he transforms crinkling plastic wrap into a roaring campfire, for one.
Indeed, there are many spots for your eye to drift to, from the foley effects to cast members Sean Williams and Neimah Djourabchi casually playing guitars and, yes, an accordion to provide background music. Their choices are fantastic: Hamlet and Juliet’s love scenes are underscored by “More Than Words”; and every time we hear the opening riff of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” we know that Lady Macbeth is about to raise all hell. Jordana Williams’ staging resembles ( as Surreal Time Press puts it) “a laid back, messing-around-with-instruments-in-the-dorm-room atmosphere”; it’s like the best kind of staged reading, where you can choose which part of the show to focus on.
More often than not, of course, that’s the brilliant cast. Those familiar with these faces laughed with delight when the lineup was announced; someone new to the show and the team will be equally chuffed to see how well the actors inhabit their reimagined Shakespearean counterparts. Stephen Heskett is appropriately soulful as Hamlet, but also gets to throw out some sarcastic zingers. Becky Byers brings her usual pint-sized fierceness to Juliet, with a crafty edge that we see reflected in her brief part as trickster fairy Puck. Brian Silliman and Kelley Rae O’Donnell are delightfully oily and sinister as Richard III and Lady Macbeth.
One standout is Abe Goldfarb’s Iago. Maybe it’s all the Thor movies and new comics lately, but Goldfarb’s take on Othello’s betrayer brings to mind Loki, which of course makes us root for him even as we’re trying to predict how he’ll twist the knife this time. One giggle-worthy surprise is Djourabchi’s surfer-boy take on Romeo, which only serves to remind you just how detached this is from the prototypical Shakespeare production. And of course, the perfect casting of playwright Mac Rogers as the boozy, defeated Will Shakespeare himself. (Though of course, Rogers leads up to that reveal by narrating the play in a delightfully overblown fashion that takes to task the more pretentious adaptations.)
This blend of nuanced interpretations, committed effects, and quirky details—like having the cast rattle with hammers and lead pipes to simulate a sword fight happening on all sides—will have you engaged for the 90-minute show. One reviewer commented that the production could have been expanded to cover more of the series and run longer, but I found this to be the perfect amount. The feeling that you’d stumbled into a theater riff session with these cool folks would have been destroyed had it been a more formal production. As it was, we were drinking wine and laughing and gasping our way through the bloody battles, plus more than a fair share of bawdy innuendos and cleverly reworked classic Shakespearean lines… really, the best way to experience the Bard.
Like the comic, this was a limited series—only five performances. However, keep up with both the Kill Shakespeare team and Gideon Productions online, and doubtless you’ll have the chance to catch this or another, equally ingenious show in the near future.