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Shakespeare in Vegas New Comedy at Dreamcatcher

Also see Bob's review of Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Year

Jessica O'Hara-Baker, Barron B. Bass, Rachael Lee, Eli Ganias and Laura Ekstrand
The premise of Suzanne Bradbeer's new comedy Shakespeare in Vegas is a very solid, high concept one. Sardinia born, Shakespeare loving, New York wise guy Tony Cordona is bummed out by what he regards as a "cheap, piece of s**t" production of Much Ado About Nothing in a basement theatre. Those of you who have been there will amusedly understand Tony's disdain when he is told that "it's actually a well respected Off-Broadway house". Being a man of taste, Tony embarks upon a project to produce Shakespeare's plays in the glitzy surroundings of Las Vegas ("If my Nonna could bring the "splendoré" of Shakespeare to the humble shepherds of Punta la Marmora, then surely, her only grandson can do a little something on the Strip"). To anchor his company, Tony wants Margot, a talented veteran actress who excelled in that Much Ado, to anchor his company for a three play season. Margot, worn down and embittered by the continual struggle to survive as a single actress in New York and pleased with the generosity of the contract Tony offers her, accepts.

By the second scene, we are in a dressing room in Las Vegas where Margot has just completed her opening night performance as Cleopatra in what is clearly an otherwise disastrous performance of Anthony and Cleopatra. Margot complains about the unseen 60-year-old actor playing Anthony. In the dressing room, we meet two other members of the company. They are attractive, not ready for prime time, young women in their twenties. Collette, who is usually an exotic dancer, is dancing about, working on a routine, and adjusting the framing of her breasts. Merrie Jo, an enthusiastic first time actress, had upstaged Margot during Cleopatra's death scene, outlandishly emoting during Margot/Cleopatra's death scene ("I can be the witness to Cleopatra's greatness by my reaction to it"). Tony explains the reason for their presence: "My theory is give 'em tits and ass and then sucker punch 'em with the iambic pentameter—boom!".

Margot's unhappiness is turning her into a hurtful scold. However, this is not Margot's true nature and depend on her to be on hand for rescues when they are needed.

We will meet but one more member of the Vegas troupe, the sensitive and sexy, charismatic ladies' man Mike. Mike, who has zero stage experience and is on parole after serving ten years of his sentence for selling mega amounts of marijuana, signs on to play Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. Mike starts out as Collette's boyfriend before gravitating to Merrie Jo (not that Margot doesn't also seek his goodies).

Thanks to the solid premise and an excellent, comically adept, hard working cast, for a time all of this is pleasant and amusing. As Margot, Laura Ekstrand gets the bulk of Bradbeer's witty, cynical dialogue, and not only makes the most of it, but also conveys the pain and unhappiness that Margot is feeling. Her moments of sadness and tenderness are the most appealing aspect of Shakespeare in Vegas. Her dueling is most amusing, even though it occurs after the play has run off the tracks in the second act.

Eli Ganias' Tony so well captures the walking cliché that is Tony that his performance could be the prototype for the playing of such roles. Rachel Lee is an appropriately ditzy Collette. Jessica O'Hara-Baker does extremely well by the somewhat more dimensional role of Merrie Lee. Barron B. Bass goes a long way toward fully embodying the charm, charisma, and sex appeal of the sought after Mike.

For the most part, Bradbeer's lines lack the satiric thrust, wit and cleverness necessary to raise Shakespeare in Vegas above the ordinary. This is a play in which the lead character is named 'Margo(t)', just so that wise guy Tony) can call her Mar-GOTT, and call her Mar-GOTT, and call her Mar-GOTT over and over again.

There is little exploration of how Shakespeare might be promoted and produced in Las Vegas' identifiably tourist milieu, and we never see Shakespeare performed. The satire starts and ends with glitzy costumes. For all that we see and hear, Tony and Cleo could be performing in some "hole" in Vegas.

What really threw me is that from fairly early on, Bradbeer abandons the satiric humor promised by her title, and, in its place, presents a deliberately nonsensical storyline on which to hang some slapstick.

It involves a Sardinian "Sardo" curse laid on Tony's Nonna for marrying Antonio, although she was engaged to Pasquali, swearing eternal vengeance on her and her family. This story goes on and on, but the upshot is that a Sardinian named Buck (a second role for Barron B. Bass) spots Tony in Las Vegas and is out to invoke the curse, kill Tony and burn down his theatre. There is well-performed slapstick here, but the story becomes a jumbled blur. I believe that Bradbeer and her interpreters intend for us to be amused by its sheer ridiculousness, and not to care about its incomprehensibility. If the result was that rare beast, a play of unbridled hilarity, I might be able to buy it. However, nothing here comes close to that level.

The center piece of the unit set by Drew Francis are three unfurled vertical banners set a yard or so apart which depict an attractive reproduction of a 15th century etching by Wenceslaus Hollar of Elizabethan London (including the Globe Theatre). It is pleasing and attractive. However, given the importance of establishing Las Vegas as a character of this play, more detailed scenery would give us a better sense of location. The excellent costumes designed by Pia Kristjansen, including the necessary sequins, are attractive and witty as well as well designed to match story and character.

John Pietrowski has directed at a fast clip, elicited comic performances which maximize the effectives of the script, and staged slapstick sequences cleanly and with wit. Pietrowski's Playwrights Theatre, which is currently seeking a new venue, has co-produced Shakespeare in Vegas with Dreamcatcher.

Shakespeare in Vegas continues performances (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday 8 pm/ Sunday 2 pm) through April 21, 2013 at the Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre at the Oakes Center, 120 Morris Avenue, Summit, New Jersey 07901; Box Office: 908-514-9654; 800-838-3006 (Brown Paper Tickets)/ on-line:

Shakespeare in Vegas by Suzanne Bradbeer; directed by John Pietrowski

Mike / Buck……………..Barron B. Bass
Margot…………………..Laura Ekstrand
Tony…………………………….Eli Ganias
Colette………………………Rachael Lee
Merrie Jo……….Jessica O'Hara-Baker

Photo: Steve McIntyre

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