Review: Shakespeare’s King Phycus (Strangetree Group)

A hilarious romp through Shakespeare’s tragedies

 phycus-eyeout

   
The Strange Tree Group presents
  
Shakespeare’s King Phycus
  
Written by Tom Willmorth
Directed by
Ira Amyx
at
The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter (map)
Through July 31  | 
tickets: $25-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Written in 1988, Shakespeare’s tale of King Phycus and his children Juliet and Hamlet is the bard’s first tragedy, a clunky amalgamation of characters and situations that could best be described as a rough draft of the legendary Tragedies that followed. Thought lost for centuries, the play reappeared in the 19th century, but phycus-plotting productions were halted for their connections to the Astor Place Riot and the assassination of President Lincoln.

Yes, the history of Tom Willmorth’s Shakespeare’s King Phycus is completely fictional, but it is the sort of detail that shows Strange Tree’s commitment to their concept. This isn’t a Monty Python-esque farce (it totally is) – this is Shakespeare’s lost tragedy, and the actors perform it with all the grandeur and importance a forgotten Elizabethan masterpiece deserves. In contrast with the ridiculous content of the play, the actors’ stern execution of their craft enhances the comedy of the piece, whether it is the street battle waged with weaponized fruit or the Nurse’s stream of dead baby retorts.

Shakespeare’s King Phycus is at its best when the humor comes from exaggerating the absurdities of Shakespeare’s plots and language. The language of the play, like any rough draft, needs a lot of work. The alliteration is overly aggressive, the rhymes are awkward and many times nonsensical, and wordplay is used so frequently that oftentimes characters lose track of what they’re even talking about. But that’s the point, especially when it comes to the heaps of classic lines that Willmorth butchers with his horrendous poetry, e.g., “By the picking of my nose, something wicked this way goes.” Yuck.

phycus-stareoutWithout the work of the talented ensemble, the script would collapse under its own weight, but the actors’ handle on Shakespeare’s language adds integrity to the play. An Elizabethan rendition of “Who’s on first?” is funnier because the actors are on point with the rapid fire banter of broken up iambic pentameter. Conversely, Friar Don’s (Scott Cupper) final monologue is completely unintelligible, showing that this cast doesn’t need consonants and vowels to be funny.

With each actor playing multiple roles, Shakespeare’s King Phycus is a demanding show performed admirably as the versatile ensemble transitions between roles  seamlessly. Michael T. Downey is noteworthy in the title role, particularly post-eye-gouging, playing the fantastic physical gag so well that the joke never gets old. phycus-chorus-pointingBob Kruse’s wonderfully creepy necrophile Gloucester and Carolyn Klein’s vulgar Nurse are also standouts, with both actors taking the exaggerations of the language and matching it with appropriately outrageous physicalizations.

As funny as Shakespeare’s King Phycus is, when Willmorth relies too heavily on pop culture references (“Isn’t it Ionic, don’t you think?) and unnecessary fan service (Friar Don is a ninja!), the results are groan-worthy and take away from the timelessness of the concept. Some of the jokes go on a little too long, like a dance sequence between Brutus, Romeo, and Sardonicus that could use a good minute of cutting, but the production still stands up well despite these flaws. Like the play’s fictional history, the little details are what make Shakespeare’s King Phycus great, the chamber arrangement of “La Cucaracha” playing in the background of the ball, the improv warm-ups of Hamlet’s friends Goldenberg and Rosenstein. For anyone that loves Shakespeare and wants to see some of his best plays reconstructed then put together in the most haphazardly hilarious way possible, Strangetree’s productions will not disappoint.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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REVIEW: Sex Marks the Spot (New Lincoln Theatre)

Even a farce needs to be sincere

  Maggie Grahm and Tony Fiorentino star in Sex Marks the Spot, the incredibly funny political comedy playing at the Theatre Building Chicago.

  
New Lincoln Theatre presents
  
Sex Marks the Spot
  
Written by Charles Grippo
Directed by
Damian Arnold
at
Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through July 25th  |  tickets: $26   | more info

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

Sex Marks the Spot is a farce about a political sex scandal. Or at least, it wants to be one. At the top of the play, Senator Clooney (Tony Fiorentino) is pacing around his office, badgering his assistant (Adam Schulmerich) as they attempt to finalize the big family values speech that he is going to deliver at tonight’s big debate with porn star Desiree Le Bonque. The reason he’s debating a porn star instead of a politician is Tony Fiorentino and Maggie  Graham star in  Sex Marks the Spot, the incredibly funny political comedy playing at the Theatre Building Chicagothat his opponent is a priest and, the men have decided that no one can debate a priest and come away from it looking good, so the big porn star offers herself up to be eaten alive in front of thousands of people, a task playwright Charles Grippo assumes, women like her have no problem with. Grippo punishes his audience with a list of Desiree’s films, with names like "Saturday Night Beaver" and "Free My Willy" which, may sound familiar to you, probably because they’re the oldest jokey porn names in the history of jokey porn names.

This kind of thoughtless writing doesn’t bode well for the farce genre, especially a farce like this one, which is in the Noises Off vein of slamming doors and timed exits. Grippo’s logic is faulty, and thus, so are his bits. The audience gets ahead of Grippo at the plays open, and it’s impossible for him to win them over. This is a play without one foot on the ground, nothing real or honest linking the words on stage to the people in the audience, except for it’s earnest cast.

This alone is not enough to garner the obvious venom on the tone of this review. What Charles Grippo is actually guilty of is creating a character that is a disgusting and offensive parody of a woman – a woman who is so broad and weakly conceived that the only characteristic she possesses is vague sycophantism and greed. The only choice this woman makes in the entirety of the play is to take off her clothes, which remain off for the duration of the show. When we finally meet Desiree Le Bonque, she is not written as a porn star, she is written as a whore. She is revealed to be having a secret affair with the senator, and she confronts the him with an ultimatum, marry me or I’ll tell. But it’s her reasoning that pushes her over the edge: she wants the one thing she can’t have: respect. So she asks to marry the one man who can give it to her. Farce or no farce, I can’t imagine a woman alive who still thinks this way, especially one who is supposed to be as successful as Desiree Le Bonque.

   

Adam Schulmerich and Tony Fiorentino star in Sex Marks the Spot, the incredibly funny political comedy playing at the Theatre Building Chicago Tony Fiorentino and Lisa Herceg star in  Sex Marks the Spot, the incredibly funny political comedy playing at the Theatre Building Chicago.

In a later scene, in which the truly talented Adam Schulmerich is forced to masquerade as Desiree, the scene escalates near to the point of rape, because of the supposed understanding that a denial of sex with the man in question will reveal that he is not, in fact, this woman. The scene is intended to be funny, but is actually one of the most disturbing scenes I have ever seen in a piece of live theater. It’s not the punchline of this joke that’s horrible, it’s the set up. It’s not the sex, or the sexualization, it’s the total lack of power and credibility this character has, and the information that the audience is supposed to take for granted, that makes for an extremely uncomfortable night of theater. Sex Marks the Spot is intended to be a comedy, but ultimately this is a play that is too far removed from humanity to parody the human condition.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

Tony Fiorentino, Adam Schulmerich and  Maggie Graham star in  Sex Marks the Spot, the incredibly funny political comedy playing at the Theatre Building Chicago.

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