Review: The Little Shakespeare Festival "Double Bill" Has All the Death By Asp You Could Hope For

Double Bill:

Shakespeare's Ladies at Tea or I Thought You'd Never Asp, written by Kathleen Kirk, after William Shakespeare

and

Shakespeare's Deaths (in 15 Minutes), by the Free Shakespeare Theatre Company Chicago

Directed by Frank Farrell

Presented by First Flight Theatre Company at UNDER St. Marks

94 St. Marks Place, Manhattan, NYC

August 10-19, 2023

The death of Caesar (Frank Farrell, center). Photo courtesy Emily Owens PR.
William Shakespeare is probably the most canonical of canonical playwrights, but that doesn't mean that theater artists can't have some fun with his works and perhaps are even invited to do so by that canonicity. FRIGID New York's The Little Shakespeare Festival, running through August 19th at UNDER St. Marks, features shows with non-traditional approaches to Shakespeare's corpus. With gender diversity, which can manifest in diverse ways, as this year's festival theme, the plays at Little Shakespeare remix, reimagine, and respond to the Bard. Two of them, Shakespeare's Ladies at Tea or I Thought You'd Never Asp and Shakespeare's Deaths, make up a Double Bill (get it?) from First Flight Theatre Company that cuts together, in different ways, snippets of Shakespearean texts to produce new, primarily comic effects.

The short play Shakespeare's Ladies at Tea, by Kathleen Kirk, brings together a selection of women characters from Shakespeare's plays in the Boar's Head Tea Room, overseen by the Henriad's Mistress Quickly (Lee DeCecco). Cleaning and setting the Boar's Head in order while the audience waits for the play proper to begin, she opens the dialogue with lines from II Henry IV regarding her having been advised to let "no swaggerers" into her establishment. Quickly, in DeCecco's excellent, spirited performance, returns to this principle throughout the piece–she's not running a tavern, after all; but there is also a gendered undertone to the admonition. Cleopatra (Frank Farrell) is the first (non-swaggering) customer to enter (her servant, Iras [Danielle Ruth], arrives later as well), and she, like the rest of the women, speaks only in existing lines from her respective play. In addition to Cleopatra and Iras, the other women at this get-together are Cressida (Brian Hagerty), Desdemona (a standout Haley Karlich), Lady Macbeth (Adam Muñoz), Portia (Michael Brunetti) and, from the less tragic side, Olivia (Hannah Simpson) and Rosalind (Jennifer Kim). This group, then, includes a couple of characters with happy (as in heteronormative) endings alongside–and outnumbered by–victims of murder and suicide (and heteronormativity). Topics that emerge from the women's conversation include love and lovers; violence (including that suffered by male beloveds) and self-harm; and (the) women's public reputation and representation. The casting is gender-blind, which bolsters the invitation that the show extends by placing familiar lines in new contexts to consider afresh these characters and the issues that they raise. Having Rosalind appear dressed as Ganymede and speak about her disguise and "hidden woman's fear" provides a further such intensification, and applying Olivia's love-struck lines about another woman disguised as a young man to Rosalind cleverly points to similar, repeated instances of gender subversion. At one point, as if in rejection of the trope of the suffering woman, Quickly interrupts Desdemona's (admittedly beautiful) performance of the willow song in a way that produces laughter and dancing among the other characters, the most communal moment among the women during the play. The conclusion, "lame and impotent," according to Desdemona, is less happy but not less funny.

The even shorter play Shakespeare's Deaths rounds out the double bill by presenting all of the notable onstage deaths from Shakespeare's plays in rapid succession (don't worry; even King John fans get their moment; more importantly, the fly from Act 3 of Titus Andronicus also gets his due). Prefacing the comic carnage is a segment of "To be or not to be," after which Midsummer's Pyramus and Thisbe kick off the proceedings by melodramatically kicking the bucket. Claudia Egli announces the title of each play from just offstage, so there's no need to re-read your copy of Shakespeare's complete works before the show; and the black-clad cast mime their weapons as the stabbings and throat-cuttings pile up, although there is a prop crown that winkingly marks the transition between III Henry VI and Richard III. While the deaths are played for laughs–Othello's (Frank Farrell) reaction after smothering Desdemona is particularly hilarious–there is a comparable effect to that of Shakespeare's Ladies in juxtaposing pieces of Shakespearean text in new ways; here the change in perspective renders often tragic moments comedic by means of their novel context and in their accumulated excess.

Shakespeare's Ladies at Tea and Shakespeare's Deaths offer a double dose of Shakespearean fun in a little under an hour Just remember: no swaggerers allowed.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards 

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