Encore Michigan

Penny Seats reimagines The Scottish Play with Joe Zettelmaier

Review June 17, 2017 Kym Reinstadler

ANN ARBOR—Ye Olde Confession: I attended the world premiere of The Renaissance Man engulfed in skepticism.

The new two-act play by Michigan playwright Joseph Zettlelmaier–a Penny Seats Theatre production that shows at 7 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through July 1 at Ann Arbor’s West Park–is billed as “a comic reimagining of Macbeth.”

The last adaptation I’d seen of Shakespeare’s haunting tragedy was Justin Kurzel’s 2015 movie starring Michael Fassbender in the title role. It was a cinematic masterpiece, to be sure. But comedy was eerily absent. Not one light word.

Could Zettlemaier really mine morose Macbeth for laughs? Odds were long, but Zettelmaier, who also directs this production, pulls it off. He achieves the near impossible by building on the premise of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but riffing on the details.

The Renaissance Man is fun, folks. Sanity unravels for a couple of characters, but nobody dies. Shakespeare’s Elizabethan language is mostly scrubbed from this production, although traces remain. There are some laugh-out-loud one-liners. Familiarity with the Shakespeare play will add a rich layer of interest as The Renaissance Man unfolds and you see how Zettelmaier has twerked it.

But those who don’t know Macbeth, or don’t particularly like Shakespeare, will like The Renaissance Man, too. Zettelmaier’s play stands on its own. Some of the 30 people in the opening night audience said they were unaware the play was adapted from Macbeth – and could scarcely see similarities upon reflection.

Unlike Macbeth, this is not a war movie. Zettelmaier’s stage is a contemporary Renaissance Festival called Gloriana where the No. 1 knight is Martin Mackabee (the Macbeth-like character), who is dissatisfied that the festival is not authentic to medieval times. Martin’s Lady Macbeth, Emma Murtz, persuades him that he should be king of the festival so their work can “educate and not merely entertain” – but, really, she just wants to be queen.

Emma starts a rumor that King Chuck Duncan has been fraternizing with staff, then entraps him in what appears to be a bawdy act at a time Martin will come upon it. To avoid shame, the king resigns and crowns Martin to preside over the festival. Note: This king is not slain. (He’s just relegated to a career in food service.)

Martin and Emma, reveling in their new power, make sweeping changes to give customers a realistic depiction of life in the 1500’s. “Magicals” (think pixies, elves and gnomes) are banished. The “Drench a Wench” dunk tank is removed and no leather corsets may be sold. The incense maker is ordered to formulate a new fragrance: poop. Face painting is ousted for a blood letting tent where guests pay with leeches.

Worst of all, Martin halts sales of turkey legs. He only allows staples of medieval diets: boiled herring, boiled cabbage, boiled turnips.

The changes are unpopular with the help. The Gypsy fortuneteller is recast as a harlot. The minstrel is now a diseased beggar who must die daily of consumption. Anyone playing a peasant is forbidden to bathe. As crowds diminish, the staff’s desire to revolt swells. When Martin and Emma aren’t looking, they blatantly disregard the new rules by wearing elf ears.

You get the flavor.

This is a superb acting ensemble, top to bottom. Patrick Loos is Martin, and Kelly Rose Voigt is Emma. Other cast members are Julia Garriote, Annie Dilworth, David Galido and Robert Schorr. Supplementing their fine performances are 10 voice-over artists. Original music with unique arrangements was by J. Saunders & Silent Lion.

This is an expertly choreographed show, with seamless scene changes and brisk pacing. If the story seems difficult to follow – or you just can’t imagine geeks and freaks waxing this passionate about a Renaissance Festival – chances are you will still like this show based on the strength of the acting.

The Renaissance Man is performed on the sidewalk in front of the stage in the amphitheater. Props are sparse, but adequately suggest a Renaissance Fair. Costumes were authentic. Loos deserves praise for performing all but the final scene of the show in armor on a hot night that included an eight-minute downpour.

Click here for show days, times and ticket information.