No Great Shakes

The last time I dropped by the Mosaic Theatre in Plantation last season, the company was presenting Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, a three-man hostage drama, to an audience of six in a bare, uninviting auditorium. Flash-forward to this month as the Mosaic presents another three-person show, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged. Nowadays the Mosaic is jammed with playgoers, many of whom are decidedly younger than the demographic at other theaters. The theater space has been completely renovated, with state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment, computerized controls, new audience seating, and even brand-spanking-new flooring. It's a tribute, mostly, to the peripatetic efforts of company founder Richard Jay Simon, who has pulled together a solidly professional theater enterprise seemingly out of thin air.

The show itself, the South Florida debut of a slight, silly spoof of Shakespeare plays, certainly has something to do with attracting those younger spectators. The Mosaic production intends to turn the Bard upside down: The house music is Elvis Presley's "All Shook Up," and the program (perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not) has been printed backward, with the title page at the back and the actors listed in reverse alphabetical order. Whipped together some years back by the three-man Reduced Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare Abridged is part satire, part vaudeville, part audience-participation improv that purports to present all of Shakespeare's plays in a 99-minute comedic whirlwind.

It doesn't do this exactly. Although the show is audience-friendly, it isn't very clever. Much of the show consists of one-note jokes: Othello is dispatched as a rap number; the history plays turn into a football game as the crown is passed around while an announcer calls the action on the field. Titus Andronicus is a cooking show. Get it? You will if you know the plots of these plays. If you don't, you'll pretty much be in the dark. That's why Abridged spends much of the first act and all of the second sending up two shows that most people do know a bit about: Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet. All 36 of the plays get a mention, if not a spoofing, but the comedy, though energetic, doesn't whip up much wind speed.

This is certainly not for lack of effort from the three-man cast. Christian Rockwell, an Australian actor with a wide range of talents, makes for an inspired clown at times. Jerry Seeger, athletic and intense, brings an edgy, George Carlin-like energy, and Anthony Sacco adds some reality to the proceedings. But despite their talents, this trio doesn't manage to pull this show up to the hilarious heights it aims for.

It starts out with promise: Seeger, an experienced solo performance artist, offers a smart, droll reinvention of the standard "turn off your cell phone" preshow speech. The play proper carries on from there with Rockwell's hilarious rendition of Shakespeare's biography, which somehow morphs into Hitler's. Little jokes abound: The Apothecary in Romeo & Juliet is played like Don Corleone, Benvolio sounds like Ricky Ricardo, and Al Pacino's Scent of a Woman character pops up as well. But as the show progresses, the jokes get lamer and the ideas get fewer. By intermission, there's a decided sense that the show's creators, Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield, just ran out of funny stuff. As the actors try to decide which characters to portray in Hamlet, a typical laugh line is: "We don't need Rosencrantz & Guildenstern; they have their own play." Yes, I get the allusion to the Stoppard work. But that's funny? Not in my world.

Fortunately the show includes some improvisational sections in the second half, particularly when audience members are recruited to play roles in Hamlet and yell out certain actor-led cheers. These are sure-fire crowd-pleasers, and the troupe handles them skillfully. But lively sections tend to contrast all the more with other sections that just don't get going, lacking much pacing or precision.

Some of this must be laid at the feet of Simon, who does double duty -- no, triple duty -- as the show's director, the company's artistic/executive director, and a driver for an electric golf cart used to ferry footsore audience members from the parking lot. Simon has established a reputation for detailed, careful direction, but here he doesn't seem to have spent as much time directing this show as he did in producing it. The staging feels general, not precise, and many skits lack much underlying ingenuity. The female roles turn into one long men-in-drag joke, with no variations. When the trio tries to perform Hamlet, there are quick changes and a rapid succession of roles that could have made for some cumulative comedic frenzy. Shakespeare Abridged may offer deliberately self-effacing, low-rent humor, but humor of any sort takes timing and finesse.

Speaking of timing, some local theater events zip in and out of production so quickly, they tend to fly under the radar of the media. Such is the case with the Juggerknot Theatre Company's upcoming project, Bump. Though it has a run of only two performances, this show bears notice for a number of reasons.

Juggerknot has been one of South Florida's most respected alternative-theater companies, presenting original, provocative works in well-wrought productions. The future of the company was in serious doubt when its artistic director, Tanya Bravo, pulled up stakes and moved to New York City. But Bravo never abandoned the troupe; she just reinvented it. Juggerknot now maintains dual residences in Miami and New York. The idea is to provide a flow of artists and projects between the two cities, a unique and exciting concept that gives Florida artists an opportunity to find audiences for their work in New York and for Florida playgoers to catch the latest New York theater wave. Hence Bump, which comes from New York playwright Justin Swain and is directed by local whiz Ricky J. Martinez.

The show is billed as a black comedy: "Set in the heart of the non-stop city, Bump explores the misunderstood lives of those who get by." Because of its short runs, the nontraditional Juggerknot must rely on nontraditional means to pull in an audience. Reviews won't help: They can be only of the "too late -- you shoulda been there" variety. So Juggerknot must rely on its reputation and the willingness of locals to take a chance on unknown material. That in itself merits my vote. I hope to see you there.

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Ronald Mangravite

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