Roustabout’s ‘Big Daddy Shakespeare’ samples Big Bard classics
By Brian Cox
YPSILANTI, Mich.–Shakespeare in Southeast Michigan in recent years has become not unlike yogurt in the dairy aisle: There is all manner of varieties to suit a range of tastes.
You like your bard in the open air? You’ve got Shakespeare in
the Arb, Water Works Theatre in Royal Oak, or Shakespeare in Detroit.
Prefer comfier seating indoors? Michigan Shakespeare Festival is staging
“Two Gentlemen of Verona” and “King Lear” in Jackson now and Canton in early August.
Looking for something for the kids? Wild Swan is hosting a “Magical
Shakespeare” drama camp later this month. For those who prefer a pint and a play, the improvisational “Shakespeare and Beer” has proved popular at Pointless Theatre in Ann Arbor.
If you like the bard in bite-size pieces, you should take note of
Roustabout Theatre Troupe’s special brand of Shakespeare, which presents
excerpts of his plays and sonnets around a central theme. The company’s
first attempt at this spin was two years ago near Valentine’s Day when they
produced the delightful and bawdy “Shakespeare You Sexy Beast,” a montage of short scenes and soliloquies drawn from nearly 20 of his plays and sonnets by Anna Simmons, Roustabout’s managing director and a founding member of the troupe.
Simmons’ latest attempt at creating a sampling of Shakespeare explores how themes of parenthood in the playwright’s works may offer insight into his own experiences as a father and son.
Big Daddy Shakespeare, which runs this weekend at Ypsi Experimental
Space, is a compilation of extracts from 10 of his plays and two sonnets.
A troupe of four unnamed Shakespearean players provides the framework in which the selections are performed. The various scenes are connected
through the players offering up brief commentary concerning aspects of
Shakespeare’s life. We learn, for instance, that he married at 18 to Anne
Hathaway (an older woman at 26!) and they had a daughter six months later.
Twins followed soon after. His only son Hamnet died at age 11. What becomes fairly clear, however, is that Shakespeare does not appear to have been much of a family man, prefering to spend the vast majority of his time in London, separated from his wife and children who remained in Stratford.
As the players, Amanda Buchalter, Julia Garlotte, Russ Schwartz and Cynthia Szczesny are versatile and accomplished, moving with confidence from comedy to tragedy. Garlotte, who won a Wilde Award for her performance as Cordelia in 2015, is particularly evocative in her portrayal of Hamlet and Szczesny is striking as Lear.
Simmons, who clearly adores Shakespeare and is immersed in his work, is
adept at identifying and condensing essential scenes that for the most part
present as satisfying wholes outside of their larger context.
Josie Lapczynski’s direction was contained and efficient while her costume
design was simple yet textured and thoughtful.
When the players are performing Shakespeare, the play is on its strongest
footing. While the biographical asides serve their purpose as the
connective tissue between scenes, the technique is tenuous and at times
comes across as didactic. The players themselves never take on individual
identities and so become too clearly instruments of facility.
Ultimately, Big Daddy Shakespeare is too forgiving of Shakespeare’s
apparent choice to take little part in his children’s lives, opting instead
to dedicate his time and energy to his career.
A more apt title may have been “Absent Father Shakespeare.” The piece has the potential to be far more provocative in illustrating that a crappy, inattentive father can yet be a creative genius, producing brilliant work that explores complex parent/child relationships despite failing miserably in the role himself.