Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Max Gutmann has done all that and more in What You Will, a new work first given a developmental reading in 2016 and now staged in its world premiere by Pear Theatre. The result is a fast-paced mélange of quips and quotes that provide in their new play placement as much or more fun and laughter as do the silly mix-ups, slapstick shenanigans, and singularly unique characters the playwright has created in true Will style.
Antonio has returned from France, successful in finding a lovely bride and in completing a sensitive, diplomatic mission for the Duke. His immediate rise in the Duke's favor has former court-favorite Malvolio in a tizzy, and he seeks the help of Roderigo to slander Antoniosomething Roderigo is more than happy to do in order to hopefully then claim Katherine, Antonio's new bride, from France. The Duke is quick to banish poor Antonio, more interested in devoting his royal time and attention to his own diplomatic relations with whatever maidens and ladies he can lure into his bedroom, while at the same time dodging the watchful eye of his suspicious Duchess.
There is a rebellion brewing in the land where the Duke's decision to be nice with the detested Franks is not playing out too well. Deceptions, secret trysts in the royal garden, plots and kidnappingsmuch must happen before the magical Shakespeare resolution at the end when all's well that end's well. Of course, nothing will happen quite like it logically should, with many twists and turns to come. At times, everyone seems as blind as the one hunchbacked, old woman who randomly wanders about, bumping into everything and everyone along her way.
Under the direction of William J. Brown III, there is a constant sense of movement, often bordering on chaos, on the floor-level stage surrounded on four sides by the audience. Scenes overlap with split-second timing. The multiple roles undertaken by most cast members are often switched as seamlessly as one character handing a cloak or hat to another passerby while immediately assuming a new persona.
That sense of the world in topsy-turvy is accentuated by four sets of brightly hued, multi-level cylinders (designed by Norm Beamer) that rarely stay in any one location long but roll about to serve such varied roles as throne, jail cell, trees and bushes, and benches in the garden. Elly Jessop Nattinger's costumes are simple and a mixture of Elizabethan and modern day, providing a sense that this is a play being put on by and for friends in someone's backyard or garagefurther accentuated as audience members are often talked to directly and/or used to hold unused costumes pieces or props for a short time. The busker effect is fun and offers a sense of spontaneity to what is clearly a well-choreographed set of dozens of comings and goings on and off the four entrances to the stage.
The cast all do a fine job in their oft-multiple sets of roles; but there are a few stand-outs that must be acknowledge up front. Chief among these is Amelia Adams as not only the high and mighty Duchess but also a plotting conspirator, Borachio, and the aforementioned cross-eyed (very much so, by the way) blind woman Bianca. Ms. Adams contorts her face into an entire catalogue of possible expressions when in the low-life roles and has multiple ways of showing the haughtiness and blue-blood pride of a royal Duchess. She is a genuine comic genius in all three roles and commands attention with or without the title of Duchess.
Another standout who clearly becomes an audience favorite is Jim Johnson, the elder among the cast, but the one who is most pixie-like in his movements and expressions. Sometimes deadpan in demeanor and sometimes with a dismissive shrug, he spits out one-liners that are sure to draw a laugh if not by content, then by his unique style of delivery. As a wizened guard of the Duke, he turns away with matter-of-fact looks multiple solicitors and intruders with hands halfway slid into his pants pockets and with no weapon in sight. But when necessity calls, he suddenly brings one intruder to his knees with a strong arm-lock that belies his age, slight build, and casual demeanor. All is good fun with Jim Johnson as both Attendant to the Duke and kind-hearted conspirator/jailer Claudio.
Mark Vashro is the wrongly maligned Antonio who seeks reprieve from the Duke, taking on the form of his French bride with just the awkward manly femininity that one would expect in a Shakespeare farce. His good-guy demeanor is strong and believable while his comic touches emerge at just the right moments to be rewarded with audience chuckles.
Kevin Hammond is the girl-crazy Duke who is particularly funny in dodging his wife at midnight in the garden while seeking out Antonio's Katherine-in-drag as someone he finds attractive. The real Katherine is a very French-sounding, sweet LeighAnn Cannon who takes a turn in a much funnier role as Serving Girl. The ensemble rounds out with Lauren Hayes as the devious and calculating Malvolio (and conspirator Balthasar), Alyssa Lupo-Zulueta as Physician and Sebastian, and Dan Wilson as a ridiculously inept Messenger and a not-too-smart plotter against Antonio, Roderigo.
Much of the real humor of this new work comes from the words of old that are given new assignments. "Is that a dagger I see before me?" certainly draws more laughs when the query is aimed toward a male's groin than when Macbeth utters the same words. "Come and kiss me, Kate" gains new life when said by this Duke to a much-reluctant Katherine-in-drag as compared to the command of Petruchio to an equally reluctant Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. Famous line after famous line draw laughs in their new role as well as insult after insult that emerge from the slanders found in the Bard's original plays (e.g., "moldy, stewed prune," "piece of toasted cheese," "dirty fish pond").
As a new work, What You Will is actually quite polished in its present, initial form. Act two perhaps loses some energy after such a rip-roaring first act (capped off by a midnight garden scene that has the crazed flavors of a Marx Brother comedy mixed into the Shakespeare setting), and the play's resolution is a bit hokey. But so are many of Shakespeare's resolutions of his comedies' earlier dilemmas, plots and sins. Pear Theatre has helped conceive and birth a new work that may not live another 400 years, but definitely deserves a few more years of staging on additional, regional stages around the country.
What You Will continues through July 16, 2017, at Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View CA. Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.