Sunday, October 28, 2012

With Witchcraft of His Wits

You gotta want it.

But if you do want it, you'll stand in line for an hour plus to get a ticket (having learned my lesson the first year when I got four people from the box office only to have them run out of tickets).

You'll grab slices of pizza from Tarrant's and eat them as you walk back, tickets in hand, to claim your seats and listen to the pre-show music. And if you want it, you'll devote four hours of your Saturday night to seeing it.

And that's when you'll know you're a Bootleg Shakespeare groupie. Tonight was my fourth attempt and my third success. And I did it all for Hamlet.

Henley Street's annual ode to the Bard always has the potential to be a major mess, yet never is. A month in advance, all the actors get their parts and scrips, which they study but don't rehearse. They come up with their own costumes and props, but still no rehearsal.

On the day of the show (beginning at an ungodly 7 a.m., an hour most of them surely never see), they spend the day blocking but not going through lines. So what the audience sees is as fresh as what the actors experience.

It's a recipe for disaster that inevitably proves the acting talent in this town with enough hilarity and inside jokes interspersed to keep everyone on their toes, both cast and crowd.

This year, it was at Virginia Rep (terribly convenient for me, a mere five blocks from home) instead of Barksdale, meaning way more seats available. The evening began with an announcement from Henley Street's Jacquie O, who enthused from the stage, "This year we turned no one away!"

That's what a fan wants to hear.

After a giveaway of a mug, two tickets to Henley Street's next production and a small ham  (a "hamlet," get it?), we were informed that the only rule of Bootleg Shakespeare is no bad words. Naturally the onstage band begins by doing Radiohead's "Creep" and singing the lyric, "You're so f*cking special" just to clarify that f*ck is not a bad word.

Or, more likely, to demonstrate the attitude of a bootleg performance.

This "Hamlet" was done '90s-style, with disaffected youth, video games and the Pixies. Let's just say that Hamlet wore a Pogues t-shirt. Gertrude wore a pink suit, pillbox hat and white gloves. Poloniuswore a "Sticky Fingers" t-shirt.

Be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence.

Henley Street's artistic director James Ricks (his hair dyed blond) played Hamlet in all his melancholy glory, whether stomping the stage in anger at his father's death or giving Ophelia the kiss-off speech.

At a bootleg show, actors often need to call for their lines (not having had any rehearsal) and it inevitably results in hysterical moments. Tonight, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, clad in trench coats and while picking up and moving each other, began calling for theirs, to great comic effect.

At one point, one ad-libbed, "We were supposed to bring a piece of paper and we didn't" to much laughter. Polonius appeared immediately after they left the stage, noting, "This business is well ended." Major applause.

He took me by the wrist and held me hard.

Another very funny scene came after Gertrude and Claudius had been informed that, "Your noble son is mad." Cue Hamlet in an untied red robe wearing goggles and swatting at the air. Passing by Gertrude, he casually says, "Hi, Mom!"

Soon after he's stuffing an entire banana in his mouth until he's unable to answer questions.

This is the very ecstasy of love.

Bootleg always uses modern touches to further the humor as when Polonius asks, "What do you read, my lord?" and Hamlet responds "Slanders, sir," holding up a copy of "Newsweek." When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern set out to do the king's bidding and see what's up with Hamlet, the three end up sitting on the edge of the stage smoking weed and playing video games

Hey, it was the '90s.

There is a kind of confession in your looks which your modesties have not craft enough to color.

Opehlia's descent into madness was well played by Audra Honaker who ends up looking like a cake-top decoration in full-skirted yellow tulle dress with pink belt and crazy eyes. When it came time for Hamlet's seminal speech, Ricks cracked wise, saying, "To be...line!"

He then exhorted the audience to read that speech with him and we did, first all together, then the women and then the men (giving a far inferior reading, I might add). Midway through that, Jacquie O. ran onstage in socks, pointing at her watch to move things along.

Soon after, when Hamlet decides to stage a play to show his uncle's guilt, he inquires about Polonius' acting experience. Frank Creasy brilliantly did his line with one minor addition, "I did, I played Julius Caesar," and then stepping forward and raising his eyebrows, he continued, "Coming this season to Henley Street Theater."

When the play within a play is being shown, an actor sits in a director's chair clearly labeled "Billy Christoper" no doubt a joke about the local director. The first act ended with the Pixies and the second act began with Ce-Lo's "Crazy," neither '90s songs yet both worked.

The first scene began while "Crazy" was still being sung with Hamlet shaving his own head. There's a moment we won't soon forget.

During the gravedigger's scene as he pulls up skulls, one is wearing a red clown's nose and Hamlet notes, "I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest." Playing in the background for this scene was Blood, Sweat and Tears' "And When I Die." Brilliant.

One thing very obvious this year was how infrequently actors called for lines compared to past years.
There's no value judgment to that statement because either way works for the audience.

But late in the play when John Mincks was playing a priest, he called for his line. When he clearly didn't remember, the prompter gave him more of it, eventually all of it.

"What she said," Mincks said in lieu of those lines and the audience roared. No question that best costume went to Phil Crosby in the role of Osric. He wore a splendid red velvet jacket, a bad wig and a foppish hat that only added to his very mannered line delivery.

He was a hoot.

But because something was rotten in Denmark, we had to end with a big fight scene, albeit one using foam noodles and plastic swords. At the end of the evening some three and a half hours later, the audience gave a standing ovation for the brave people who'd given us our annual dose of bootleg.

People like Deejay Gray who stepped in at the last minute and had only 24 hours to learn his lines. Even so, I'd have to say that he played a queen brilliantly. Likewise, when he and John Mincks played sailors, the camp was off the charts.

And naturally there was the big finish with local legend Scott Wichmann coming out in sunglasses and looking buff in fatigues to play Fortinbras at the end. The Bard said it best and all I can add is "amen."

What a piece of work is man.

Okay, I can add something else to that.

What a piece of work is man and woman...never more so than when combined to give us Bootleg Shakespeare.

Ay, there's the rub. I gotta have it.

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