Ever enterprising and ambitious, The Montford Park Players opened their 38th season of outdoor Shakespeare with not one, but two, distillations: the charming, tongue-in-cheek Complete Works of Wm. Shakespeare (Abridged), presented as a fund-raiser, and the latest, a fresh edition of The Asheville Shakesperience, dubbed “An Evening of the Bard’s Best,” which is offered, as will be all of the summer’s full-length performances, for free.
“Brevity,” as the long-winded Polonius in Hamlet would have it, “is the soul of wit,” and one might have expected those producing the equivalent of Shakespeare’s greatest hits to have taken this dictum to heart; alas, due to the Players’ generosity and genial self-indulgence, Shakesperience clocks in at about three hours (twice the length of The Complete Works, at least on the night this reviewer saw that show), proving, decidedly, too much of a good thing.
It’s too bad, really, because a more judicious selection would have showed off the troupe’s considerable talents to greater advantage. Director Scott Keel and his mostly young cast bring great inventiveness to the proceedings, in terms of both physical staging and the mash-ups and musical interpolations that set the evening in motion, and provide a handhold from scene to scene. Mostly, these inventions are clever and enlightening; almost as often, though, they miss the mark, confusing rather than illuminating.
The framing device is a good example of the whole: drawing material, in part, from Hamlet, concerning the troupe engaged to enact The Mouse Trap, two Fools (Darren Marshall and Dwight Chiles) are asked to perform “The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These Fools wander off for a drink but return later in the evening to rehearse their scene, and later still to perform it entire, but why?
The unusual, operatic approach to the full presentation would have been as amusing, if not more so, without the desultory lead-in, and the linking scenes don’t add up to a coherent narrative, serving mostly, despite moments of amusement, to prolong the night to no clear purpose. The main selections could have been introduced more simply and effectively without this conceit, and the performers might have been better focused on the substantial task at end.
The eight key scenes are equally divided between comedy and tragedy and, on the whole, the comedies fare better. The pleasures of Much Ado About Nothing were significantly enhanced by the farcical use of the grand Montford Park stage, with its multiple entrances, exits, and levels, as Benedick (Mike Coghlan) and Beatrice (Trinity Smith) contort themselves in myriad ways to hide while attempting to overhear others discoursing on their surprising love for one another.
The young couples of As You Like It (Coghlan and Smith joined by Esha Grover and Jonathan Milner) did disport pleasingly, and in the excerpt from The Taming of the Shrew, Coghlan and Smith made the always muscular battle between Petruccio and his Kate into a literal fencing match, expending enormous energy and great good humor in the process. And as Pyramus and Thisbe, Marshall and Chiles (aided in no small measure by Hamilton Goodman as Prologue, Wall, Moonshine and Lion, and a delightful, live dog with a period ruff around his neck) supplied as much mirth as one could wish for, and then some.
A couple of the tragedies were tougher going. For both Hamlet and Othello, Keel and company had the curious notion of dividing up the lines of the title characters three ways: Milner’s Hamlet was aided by Marshall and Chiles, dressed in gray, and Coghlan’s Othello was assisted, too, by Marshall and Chiles, this time dressed in black and white, respectively. The approach spoke interestingly to the characters’ divided natures, but left the leads playing only one note, which is most unfortunate, especially since Ophelia (Grover) and Desdemona (Smith) tend to be played monochromatically anyway. This turned both great scenes — “Get thee to a nunnery” from Hamlet and the murder of Desdemona from Othello — into shrill, tear-filled, often difficult-to-hear undramatic affairs.
Richard III was better, perhaps because shorter, though one yearned to see more of what Marshall had to offer as Richard, in part because, along with Master of Ceremonies Chris McLoughlin, he handled Shakespeare’s tricky language most consistently and clearly throughout the event.
Best of all was the final entrant from Romeo and Juliet: the balcony scene, so well-suited to the Montford setting and brilliantly handled by the refreshing double casting of pairs of Romeos and Juliets (Coghlan, Milner, Smith and Grover). Here the players’ youth was beneficial, and the double casting provided a unique perspective that brought the oft-played scene fully to love-filled life.
It’s nearly impossible, with a cast of eight, to cast so many different roles properly. On the whole, though, the Players’ brought gusto to everything they touched (including a couple of sonnets declaimed during intermission), and if Asheville audiences bring just enough indulgence of their own to The Asheville Shakesperience, they’ll have a lovely night, indeed.
The Asheville Shakesperience, directed by Scott Keel. Stage manager: Caitlin Lane. Costumer: Victoria Smith. Fight choreographer: Hamilton Goodman.
With Chris McLoughlin (Master of Ceremonies), Hamilton Goodman (Assistant MC), Mike Coghlan (Male 1), Jon Milner (Male 2), Trinity Smith (Female 1), Esha Grover (Female 2), Darren Marshall (Fool 1), and Dwight Chiles (Fool 2). Through Friday, Saturday and Sunday, June 11 to 13 at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre. Free.