Shakespeare, the Hat Trick way

There's energy to spare in this staging of the Bard's "greatest hits."

click to enlarge SUCH SWEEP SORROW: Hat Trick Theatre actors shine in Choose Your Own Shakespeare. - Courtesy Hat Trick Theatre
Courtesy Hat Trick Theatre
SUCH SWEEP SORROW: Hat Trick Theatre actors shine in Choose Your Own Shakespeare.

It seems like a good idea: Using dialogue and monologues from a slew of Shakespeare plays, construct a new work, a hitherto unknown work, and let the audience participate in its making. Some framework is necessary, so announce this general plot: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, someone sets off on a journey, faces an ordeal, then boy and girl are reunited. Begin the play with Hamlet's instruction to the Players — "Speak the speech trippingly on the tongue" — and then offer the audience its first decision: encountering a character that will be a yak or a kumquat.

Cheer if you want kumquat. Cheer if you want yak. Yak wins and we're off.

It's Choose Your Own Shakespeare.

It ought to have worked. After all, didn't the Bard write about everything in life? And doesn't Hat Trick Theatre have access to the most enthusiastic actors in the Tampa Bay area, the ones who consistently give their all for the least pay and in the tiniest space? If goodwill were all that a play needed to be successful, Choose Your Own Shakespeare would be a blockbuster hit.

Nevada Caldwell, Keith Odums, Steve Fisher, Careena Cornette, April Bender and Gregory P. Milton give this play so much energy, you'd think that you were witnessing some theatrical Super Bowl, where everything is at stake and there are no tomorrows. And there's more here than energy — there's love and joy and effervescence and sweet delight. And if you're even halfway grateful, you want to give something in return, some delirium of your own. This is a play you want to love.

But you can't. 'Cause it's a mess. 'Cause when you mix Beethoven's Third with Beethoven's Ninth, you don't get Beethoven's Twelfth. You get confusion. Things don't fit. One part doesn't lead to another.

I'll tell you what I can remember (my notes are no less confused than the play). There was a lot of Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It. For reasons which I don't pretend to understand, the witches of Macbeth appeared about two-thirds of the way into the production, and a character who didn't previously seem suicidal suddenly launched into Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy.

Someone or other got jealous, and I think he quoted from Winter's Tale. Then there were some seemingly uncalled-for moments from Othello. I did understand the lines from Midsummer Night's Dream having to do with the journey section, and I could even appreciate the whole illogical cascade of citations from Richard III, Henry V and Twelfth Night as the play was ending. But what did it add up to? I have no idea. I honestly can't tell you what narrative — and I think there was one — I witnessed. I do know that the six performers were acting their hearts out. They have my respect and my utter puzzlement.

Further memories: There was more than a little slapstick trying to glue the hopelessly shattered Bard together. Performer Cornette shook and shimmied like a shameless sex object at various moments, Performer Fisher mooned the audience at the mere mention of the moon, and a child's horse toy stood in for a horse long after the laughter had ceased. Someone shined a red laser-point onto performer Bender, and suddenly she was Lady Macbeth, crying, "Out, damned spot."

A volunteer from the audience was asked to play Charles the Wrestler in a slow-motion battle from As You Like It, and two audience members — I was one — won Hat Trick T-shirts by predicting a scene's outcome. Strangely, the most promising feature of the show — asking the audience to choose which course the play should take — occurred only a very few times. A lot of Choose Your Own Shakespeare seemed already chosen.

The most successful part of the play, happily enough, was the quality of the spoken Shakespeare: Every one of these actors treated the Bard's language as a living thing, full of sense and intellectual and emotional detail. (If they can bring this much professionalism to Shakespeare's challenging language, let's see a complete play!) But the bare stage at the Silver Meteor Gallery didn't bring to mind the bare stage at the Globe; instead it stood out as a missed chance for visual clues that might have helped us know where we were.

Director Lani McGettigan (she also conceived the show) needs to empathize more with us rubes in the audience. If we're baffled, then even the Bard's Greatest Hits can't set us straight. Costuming, too, might have helped us understand where the story was taking us, but everyone was wearing casual street clothes — with names like "Sis 1" or "Man A" on the tops — and finally it all looked pretty sloppy (except for Nevada Caldwell's vertical black and white stripes, announcing her as a referee). The few stage furnishings included a throw, some white boxes, a barstool and an upended table. Not very helpful.

I really do hope that Hat Trick will return to the Bard sometime soon. With American Stage's withdrawal of Shakespeare in the Park, someone has got to take up the slack (true, Jobsite's going to do Pericles in their next season, but that's the playwright at his most minor). So as a proud owner now of a Hat Trick T-shirt, I say, let's see Measure for Measure or Macbeth or The Tempest. Choose Your Own Shakespeare is all well and good, but it's not as if we're so sated with Lears and Henry IVs that we need new diversions. Lani McGettigan, you've shown us All at Once; now how about One at a Time?

'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

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