Los Angeles/Tour Theater Review: SHOTSPEARE’S ROMEO AND JULIET (Skinny’s Lounge and Cavern Club in L.A. & Planet Hollywood in Vegas)

by Jason Rohrer on November 8, 2014

in Theater-Las Vegas,Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

Post image for Los Angeles/Tour Theater Review: SHOTSPEARE’S ROMEO AND JULIET (Skinny’s Lounge and Cavern Club in L.A. & Planet Hollywood in Vegas)

THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS

Shotspeare is a comedy punch mulled from liquor, a few conservatory-trained actors and Ringling Brothers clowns, and the brutalization of one of the best plays ever written. There’s a Wheel of Soliloquy to determine punishments for actors unlucky enough to give speeches; there’s a case of beer and a bottle of hard stuff onstage for when the players fuck up. Having dealt with them after several shows, I can tell you that they really can get really drunk. Their repertoire at this point consists of Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, the latter of which is the play du jour. Delicious tortures are inflicted on the audience, and I can never resist mentioning that the players fight with real metal swords while intoxicated, because that’s awesome. In about an hour, all the dangerous, crude, and humane elements of Shakespeare are vividly evoked, and some of the poetry. I have seen it literally as often as I have known about its playing in my town. It has become vital to me. I need it.

SHOTSPEARE'S ROMEO AND JULIET. Photo by Jamie Arrigo.

Show obsession can be a glorious state of being. I don’t mean Broadway shows. If you’re a kid who grew up queuing at TKTS to see Les Miz a thirty-fifth time, or looking to complete your collection of program inserts for each new actor singing the Phantom, or anything that already spent a million dollars on lobby merchandise before you heard about it: that is a different thing. I am talking about thrilling acts that come from love and sweat and no money, that resonate with subversive and original ideas, that inspire a dormant part of society’s best self. Something you see first in the back of a bar, or in a venue off an alley where transvestite runaways earn meth money. A show that costs the performers at least as much as it costs you.

SHOTSPEARE'S ROMEO AND JULIET - photo by Maike Schulz

Watching such a show over the course of years is dangerous, because on some level you are hoping to see something good take a turn into the Big Time, and it might not. Most good things don’t. It might start sucking: it might get sponsorship that sands down the edge. It might die: Jimmy quit, Jody got married, what have you. I’m talking about a show that gives you the sense of personal stake that ball fans have, only your avatars aren’t making millions and you don’t have to share your special thing with everybody in a Dodgers hat. It’s yours. If it wins, you win. If it loses, you lose something too.

SHOTSPEARE'S ROMEO AND JULIET - photo by Jim R Moore

Thus, nervously, I went to see the burgeoning moveable feast that is Shotspeare yet again last Thursday night at Skinny’s, a North Hollywood tavern. That’s where I saw it the first time, so, you know, they’re keeping it real. Except that since I last saw the troupe a year ago, they’ve done shows in New York, with a largely different cast, and been discussed in the Wall Street Journal. (I will not link to any outlet owned by Rupert Murdoch.) They’ve played Vegas, too – they’re there again on Monday, before returning to Los Angeles for a couple of dates.

SHOTSPEARE'S R&J in Vegas - POSTER.

Since I last saw them, they have indeed received corporate sponsorship from a brand called Shakespeare Vodka. You will understand my apprehension for the little show I discovered in the traditional way, by following the careers of people who had impressed me in other stuff (Matt Morgan, performer and Shotspeare director; Corey Womack, stage manager and board op). Also since last year, four members of the troupe have in fact got married, two of them to each other. As with rock bands, this rarely bodes well for theater companies – especially, I thought, since during their last L.A. show I had to tell a cast member’s fiancé to stop talking in the audience.

SHOTSPEARE'S ROMEO AND JULIET - photo by Maike Schulz.

And before the show Thursday, I discovered that, yes, one of my favorites had departed the company, a scant 48 hours prior to curtain. Jennifer Seifert, already playing the Capulets, and Guilford Adams, their Nurse, would have to absorb the parts of Prince Escalus and Tybalt and sundry Veronese. I worried for them, and for the show, and for myself, who had brought several people at risk to my reputation – on the strength of my passion, even my editor had come to sniff it out. Skin in the game? I got it.

Shotspeare's Wheel of Soliloquy.

Thursday’s show began, as ’twere, on the rocks. For the first few minutes, the “let’s put on a show” aspect shone through the professionalism that had always put such a welcome shine on an act that could easily veer boorish. This appeared to be due to the cast not having worked together in a long time, and never in this configuration. The energy was interrupted at times: there was dead space during the waiver-signing by the Audience Participant, a bit that usually pulls its own laughs. I sweated through my sweater. If I still drank I would’ve downed a double, because I cherish Shotspeare and worry about it, as you do about only your most precious objects, like children. It’s creepy, really, this kind of fandom. I’m not used to it. I only met these guys two years ago.

SHOTSPEARE'S ROMEO AND JULIET. Photo by Jim R Moore

A truth about good shows, though: a bumpy start makes for a more triumphal finish. I ended up having about as many laughs watching this one as I’ve had watching anything, and the crowd shouted happily at least every couple of minutes. My editor was pleased. The real news? This comic truncation of a tragic romance summoned the cathartic essence of Shakespeare with more authenticity and immediacy than did the traditional, very English, very long Shakespearean tragedy I saw the night before.

SHOTSPEARE'S ROMEO AND JULIET - photo by Jim R Moore.

Morgan is a conscientious and thoughtful director of actors and of moments, and if this is slightly less in evidence in Romeo and Juliet than in his more ambitious Macbeth, this speaks to his growth as an artist. He (playing Mercutio and Friar Laurence, among others) and his wife, Heidi Brucker Morgan (Juliet), just do not let down. Together they spent much of the last year starring in Empire, a genuine Big Time variety show in Australia; they are performers who can juggle, dance, tumble, speak the speech, and always please. Heidi fairly hums with the joy of being young and talented and fearless, whether she’s making me laugh or cry. She seems more invested in chewing the language than her husband. But Matt’s face is like an inviting pool reflecting a generous inner life. He is infectiously likable, the sort of personality that seems to leap from the stage, sit beside you, and share secrets.

SHOTSPEARE'S ROMEO AND JULIET. Photo by Jim R Moore.

Seifert is a lovely and disciplined actor who grips the throat of given circumstance, and her new responsibilities in no way impeded her ability Thursday night. She evokes gravity with ease and has always grounded this Romeo and Juliet, even back when she was so pregnant she seemed to be wearing a helium balloon. (No, she didn’t drink for that show.) Adams is a wonder: his clowning and improvisational chops are formidable, and since seeing him perform the role of Macbeth in a state bordering on incapacity, I count his balls among the biggest. What his Tybalt and his Nurse have in common is as entertaining as what they don’t. Another brilliant, reliable actor and clown, Brandon Breault, plays Romeo as you’ve never seen him – as a squealing, cowardly whore, a terrible friend and a worse lover; he’s made me rethink the role along the lines of his interpretation, and it’s not only valid, I would like to see a full-length production built around this concept. Womack’s board work is perfectly timed and tasteful, here or at the Falcon or the Fountain or the Rockwell or you name it. I can’t stay friends with people who aren’t consistently delightful. At least, I don’t write about them.

Shakespeare Vodka

Clay, the audience member dragged into playing various small roles, looked to be having the time of his life. He got better at rattling off his printed lines the drunker he got. He looked a little sad to leave. Afterward, congratulating the cast / waiting for AAA to get my keys out of my car, I found myself helping strike the set and joining the hunt for Matt Morgan’s lost wedding ring (found, after much consternation). The show is that kind of experience, one that encourages an ongoing attachment. On this tour you have two more chances in Los Angeles, and one in Las Vegas, to be enthralled by this brave band, before (as I predict) they get too big for intimate venues. After that, you’ll have to share your love with the cheap seats, which used to be all there were.

How obsessed am I? The next night, on the way to a different show, I locked myself out of my car again. My first thought was that this time I wouldn’t be able to hang out with Shotspeare while I called the auto service. It made me sad.

photos by Jamie Arrigo, Jim R Moore, and Maike Schulz

Romeo and Juliet
Shotspeare
Skinny’s Lounge in North Hollywood
played on November 6, 2014

Upcoming performances:
Monday November 10, 2014 at 10 pm
Sin City Theater
Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino
3667 Las Vegas Blvd South, Las Vegas NV
for tickets, visit Brown Paper Tickets

Friday November 14, 2014 at 9 pm
Saturday, November 15, 2014 at 9 pm
The Cavern Club
1920 Hyperion Avenue, Los Angeles CA
for tickets, visit Brown Paper Tickets

for future events, visit Shotspeare’s Facebook Page

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