Unexpected Shaxpere!

The idea of presenting improvisational Shakespearean drama sounds fascinating. The audience comes up with a few ideas—an occupation, a place, and an object—all unrelated to each other or to Elizabethan times, and six actors put together a cohesive play based on these ideas, while speaking in iambic pentameter, sonnet form, and blank verse.

It's important to note, however, that no one in Elizabethan times spoke in iambic pentameter or sonnet form (or even blank verse); this unique combination was the synthesis of a man who learned the two arts from his two uncles, one of whom was the first to translate Ovid into English (the source of the pentameter), and the other who shared the honor of introducing the sonnet form into English. The gifted fellow who conjoined these was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

So, it would be quite a trick for anyone, off the top of his or her head, to put together any combination of words that would resemble the poetry and scansion of a writer who was singularly trained and gifted in this art, who spent some time crafting his work, and whose written vocabulary was more than twice that of anyone else.

Additionally, it would take more than a large measure of talented monkey's pounding on typewriters for a few geologic ages to craft any dramatic or comedic tales that would approach that of this same fellow's works.

However, as we learned sitting through this effort, it is possible to imitate the cadence, toss in a few Sirrahs and wherefores, scramble one's syntax, wrap the proceedings in sophomoric humor, and get students to laugh.

Much like the juvenile The Complete Works of Wm. Shakespeare (Abridged), Unexpected Shaxpere! promises more than it can deliver. The former abridges nothing in Shake-speare (de Vere's spelling—to evoke the muse Pallas Athena, who shakes a spear: there were no actual Shakespeares in England who hyphenated their name), but simply makes fun of characters and events while substituting silliness for creativity, and the latter doesn't improvise Shakespearean form, but simply fills in what appears to be pre-devised templates much in the manner of Mad Libs.

Also, while the bard certainly used slapstick and sexual innuendo to maintain the attention of the groundlings, it should be noted that such tricks were hardly the mainstay of his technique (as we saw here), but rather sideshows to the central dramatic arc.

In the context of Shakespearean form, or any theatrical form for that matter, improvisation certainly has its place in developing sponteneity and the subtext of character, but it generally offers very little in the way of catharsis, irony, and any number of other noble sentiments that require a greater degree of consideration than is available under the relentless compulsion to say something, anything, before the beat expires.

If an improvisation group really wanted to display their mastery of this genre, how about using a real scene from the canon and altering it's premises. Then we might find a blend of erudition and comedy worthy of the real bard, instead of half-baked scansion, confounded elocution, and pedestrian sentiments.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's presentation of Unexpected Shaxpere! runs through August 13th with a rotating group of actors from Seattle’s Unexpected Productions! 303-492-0554.

Bob Bows


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