A Killer Play, Four Centuries in the Making
In commemoration of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory and Cohesion Theatre Company have joined forces to produce The Complete Deaths of William Shakespeare. There’s murder. There’s mayhem. There’s mirth. There’s even a Zombie Shakespeare to conduct you through the carnage. Whether or not you consider yourself a fan of the Bard, this collaboration between two of Baltimore’s best theater companies is well worth watching. This delightful show runs this weekend only, though, so cancel whatever you’re doing tonight or tomorrow and go see it.
Written by Cohesion co-founder Alice Stanley (and, you know, Shakespeare), The Complete Deaths depicts all the onstage deaths from Shakespeare’s 37 plays. That’s 76 fatalities in under two hours, including intermission – or approximately one death every 1½ minutes. It’s a fast-paced show. Stanley’s ordering of the death scenes, coupled with their rapier wit in penning Zombie Shakespeare’s narration, pull together what could have been a disjointed jumble of scenes into a cohesive play that is a pleasure to watch start to finish.
Stanley and their co-director, Baltimore Shakespeare Factory founder Tom Delise, manage the play with skilled hands and careful attention to pacing and time. Fight Choreographers Tegan Williams (from BSF) and Brad Norris (co-founder of Cohesion) designed the multitudinous dances of death with the sort of precision that allows fleet-footed actors to engage in realistically fast-paced melees with actual metal swords and other pointy weapons without accidentally adding to the already-high body count. The fights look great.
With 76 lives being extinguished in less than your average wait time to get into Sunday brunch, the play could have been exhausting and emotionally draining – both for the audience and the cast. To combat this risk, many of the scenes are played comedically. The show is, in fact, full of laughs and merely punctuated by some of the more serious, tragic scenes being played “straight.” The delicate balance is maintained beautifully. There are heart-rending moments such as Othello’s realization that he has killed his beloved Desdemona based on treacherous lies. These are made easier to suffer by their proximity to events like Death by No. 2 Pencil or Vaudevillian Bear Attack.
The ensemble cast of The Complete Deaths of William Shakespeare is superb. The combatants are Zach Bopst, Jessica Byars, Chris Cotterman, Dominic Gladden, Melanie Glickman, Brad Norris, Katherine Vary, and Tegan Williams. I commend them all on learning not only the lines and characters of such a wide array of plays, but also on mastering the intricate fight choreography and the use of a multitude of weapons ranging from quarterstaffs to swords, battle axes to… well, I don’t want to spoil it for you.
I could go into great detail about how each of these talented actors wowed me as they switched between multiple characters from multiple plays, each dying and killing over and over again. But you need to stop reading and go reserve your tickets. I will, however, briefly note my appreciation for a couple standouts with these quick accolades: Jessica Byars’ comedic timing was (as always) wonderful. The juxtaposition of Dominic Gladden’s Laertes and Othello showed his remarkable emotional range. Brad Norris’ portrayals of each of his characters – particularly Titus – were pitch-perfect. And nobody dies like Melanie Glickman. It sounds dreadful to say, but the 11 times Glickman’s characters shuffled off this mortal coil were each a treat to behold.
I cannot forget to mention the play’s only non-combatant – the mass murdering playwright himself: Zombie Shakespeare. Played by Jonas Grey, Zombie Bard provided a frame and context for the scenes within the play, as well as a healthy dose of levity. What impressed me the most, though, was not Grey’s flawless delivery of well-written lines, but what he was doing when he was not addressing the audience. Remaining in character throughout, Grey watched the events onstage unfold along with the audience – sometimes standing in the aisles, sometimes sprawled imperiously in the seats, sometimes kneeling intently near the stage. Grey’s physicality, affect and posture all read true; one could easily imagine his reactions being how Shakespeare might really react upon discovering that four centuries after his death, the world treasured his work. Grey’s Shakespeare was charming, proud, rapt, and unsettlingly enthusiastic as he watched character after character reach their demise.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one intermission.
The Complete Deaths of William Shakespeare plays through January 17, 2016 at The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, performing at The Great Hall at St. Mary’s Community Center – 900 Roland Avenue, in Baltimore, MD. Tickets are available online. Only two performances remain: tonight, January 16, 2016 at 8:00 pm, and tomorrow, Sunday, January 17, 2016 at 4:00 pm.