Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Or What You Will, the Third
The mad complexities of the rise of kings and queens, and a whole solar system of wives and nephews and mistresses, are suddenly brought to life at The Chapel, by Poor Monsters, in a skit called "An Actual Conversation We Had." That one is written by director Katy Keating, along with Alicen Moser, Ashley Bauman and Lex Ronan, as one of a dozen scenes reflecting on Shakespeare's most reviled anti-hero. And it's the vast improbability of British royal ascension itself, suddenly laid bare in a blizzard of name cards on a crowded genealogical display, that throws the legitimacy of the planet's most storied culture into a cocked hat.
All the skits, or interludes, or blackouts, are written by women, so the idea that only an ambitious man would go around killing every nobleman in his way becomes nicely gender-neutral in this production, which tightens up and becomes more streamlined, as a sort of "game show" format takes over 60 minutes in.
That's when we get to an NCAA-style bracket (and the show's other large chart), and the audience cheers for which skits should proceed to the next level of competition, where they'll be performed in a much more taut, pared-down manner, in a second round. As with anything else, pace and brevity help a lot here. In the third round, our most favorite skits are reduced to just a blur of a few catch-phrases, but it's fun to hear that tune again ("Love Song," by Alicen Moser), sung by a romantically conflicted girl group, to a member of the audience who stands in for the title character.
It's interesting to note that, just a year ago, millennials everywhere were stunned by the sudden rise of a grasping, authoritarian leader in this country. But now they've begun to come to grips with it, and gotten their first (if only lightly nuanced) taste of political humor in the intervening months. You could easily be forgiven for wondering if your own grandson is spending nights huddled in front of YouTube, listening to old comedy recordings by Vaughn Meader and David Frye. Somehow, in the modern trends in child-raising, political humor has been a purely recessive gene till now.
In "The First One, or Who Is Richard?," Ms. Moser must explain to a mob of tiki-torch wielding internet trolls that Shakespeare's play is not an unfair hack job on an otherwise insightful, bold leaderwho only embarked on his royal slaughter, and provoked a war, because he was too hideous to enjoy the fruits of peacetime. Later, "Versus," by Shannon Grier, benefits from strong pace and conflict, pitting two young actors against one anotherone has just been cast as Richard III, and the other as Hamlet, and any sign of camaraderie between them is hastily trampled by jealousy and odorous comparison.
There's a big "aw shucks" element at work here, though, which undercuts some of the really fine moments on stage. In ten years, when time and trial have had their turn, these fine performers will look back and realize they had something pretty exciting on their hands. And that's when things will sharpen up a bit more, and a wicked sort of confidence will make the revival even more fun, in 2028.
Through April 21, 2018, at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Dr., immediately south of Wydown Blvd. and just west of Skinker Blvd., St. Louis MO. The April 19th performance is free, as part of the five-day "Shake 38" festival. For more information on "Or What You Will, the Third" visit www.poormonsters.com and for broader information on "Shake 38" visit www.sfstl.com.