One thing can be said with confidence about the season opener at Montford Park: It will stop at nothing to please. Certainly if sheer physical effort were the same as entertainment, this would be the funniest show in recent Asheville memory. I’ve rarely seen actors work so hard. And it’s not just that this particular play requires it. For any play to be done in the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre by only three actors will mean some serious athleticism of body and voice. There’s just something a little absurd, if not to say desperate, about the whole situation. And this is exactly the dramatic premise of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [abridged].
The play, which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1987 and went on to become the longest-running comedy in London, is in many ways a perfect season-opener (and, be it noted: ticketed fundraiser) for The Montford Park Players. In fact, one wonders why it’s not done every year. The show appeals to anyone who has enough experience with Shakespeare’s work to find him profound, intimidating and more than a little annoying. Which is to say, most of us. While the humor of the show presumes some knowledge of Shakespeare, it’s no more than your average American high school graduate is likely to have, and considerably less than your average Montford Park patron. In short: you won’t feel dumb — or at least, not as dumb as the three guys on stage.
Local favorites Mike Coghlan, Cody Magouirk and Darren Marshall play … well, themselves, really: Three hapless but indomitable actors attempting to do all of Shakespeare’s plays in a little more than 90 minutes. Exactly why they want to do this is never made clear in the plot, but no matter; the title of the show implies a promise, and that promise must be kept. Naturally some compromises have to be made –– like, for example, combining all of the bard’s comedies into a single more or less nonsensical mash-up, or doing the history plays as a kind of backyard Super Bowl reenactment by your three most embarrassing uncles. Not surprisingly, it is the compromises –– and the “meta-theatrical” squabbles that ensue between the characters as a result of them — that turn out to be the funniest parts of the show.
The loose, irreverent, improvisational style of the piece is embraced with tremendous esprit by the actors –– though as is often the case with improv, the energy tends toward the frenetic, and remains there a bit too long. Every now and then a moment of stillness, or shall we say, dumbfounded catatonia, might have been a welcome, and funny, relief. And audiences should be forewarned: Throughout the show, the “fourth wall” lies pretty much in a pile of broken sheetrock at your knees. Yes, there is some of that “audience participation” we all love, but it’s all done in the spirit of having a good time. Director Robert Allwyn White, a Professor Emeritus from Brevard College who is new to Montford Park, does a fine job of channeling the chaos and mayhem, and is remarkably adept at finding ways to use a set which not only has nothing to do with the play he’s directing, but is also under construction. (Stage right stands a grotesque tree-like object oozing yellow foam, which I was alarmed to discover will be used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) Yet this, too, seems oddly appropriate to the show.
According to the script, the original creators (Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield of the Reduced Shakespeare Company) developed the show based on the conceit that “these three guys are making the whole thing up as they go along, getting by on blind enthusiasm and boundless energy whenever they lack talent or any real clue about Shakespeare’s work.” That pretty much says it all. Except that for an actor to play a character who is himself an actor, albeit a bad one, and yet to play him well, requires a rather sophisticated dramatic intelligence, to say nothing of sheer talent and good directing. Nor is the task simplified by the fact that the character (who is an actor) and the actor who plays him have the same name. But Coghlan, Magouirk and Marshall pull this off with impressive skill, and the effect is at times quite hilarious. While Coghlan’s character (“Mike”) appears to suffer from ADHD and to harbor a bizarre fascination with vomit, Marshall’s “Darren” tries desperately and with no perceptible success to keep the show on track. Magouirk’s “Cody,” meanwhile, actually seems to imagine he is a serious Shakespearean actor. Beneath the preposterous antics of the characters, it’s clear that these three men have a great rapport with each other, and love doing what they do. This really carries the show. And it can’t hurt that they are gifted comedians individually, each of them with an incredible capacity to, as we say, “put out.” Vocally and physically, they hold nothing back. They’re also just fun to see together: Marshall with the physique, facial hardware, and coif of an L.A. bouncer, Coghlan as the skinny kid you keep expecting to see roll out on a skateboard, and Magouirk, the Average American Guy who just needs to ease off on the caffeine a bit.
Yet the occasional gag does fall flat, and some scenes lack the precision and economy they require. But apart from wishing that the energy level were a bit more nuanced throughout the show, my only serious concern has to do with, for lack of a better term, the “racial politics” of one of the scenes, namely, the Othello section. The actors do what they can to finesse this moment, but the discomfort in the audience is palpable; and I can’t help but wonder whether, 22 years after the show was created, certain things just aren’t that funny anymore. Or perhaps they could be, but only if treated with more sophistication. I could mention certain “Nazi” references as well. The issue here isn’t “political correctness” (laughter is by its very nature transgressive), but rather, striking the right tone at the right time to make the painful thing funny. Comedy as a dramatic form is thoroughly of this world, and the comedian ignores his milieu at his own peril.
But these are what one might call “high resolution” criticisms. The show is well worth the ticket plus mosquito-bites, and certainly for anyone who’s unfamiliar with The Montford Park Players (now officially in its 37th season, making it the longest-running Shakespeare festival in North Carolina), it’s a fine introduction to what these plucky players are all about.
Director: Dr. Robert Allwyn White. Stage Manager: Deanna Braine. Cast: Mike Coghlan, Cody Magouirk, Darren Marshall.
Show runs Thursdays through Sundays, through May 31, at Montford’s Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre. Tickets are $15 adults, $10 students. Info at the Montford Park Players’ Web site.