Thursday, March 24, 2011

An Imperfect Ricochet Genre Fusion at the Stackner

Milwaukee Rep brings THE BOMB-ITTY OF ERRORS to Cabaret

By Russ Bickerstaff
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A strange and imperfect fusion of Shakespeare and hip-hop, The Bomb-itty of Errors is a satisfactorily bizarre evening at the Rep’s Stackner Cabaret. Havign debuted elsewhere a little while back, the retro hip-hop re-telling of Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors has met with critical acclaim. The Rep brings its own deft spin on a weird hybrid as it presents a production of the show now through early May.

The story centers on two pairs of identical twins. With a cast that includes people who look drastically different, the identical identity relies pretty heavily on parallel retro hip-hop costuming that is cleverly realized by Holly Payne. Wayne T. Carr and Michael Phillip O’Brien play twin Antipholuses in track pants with Justin Jain and Steve Pacek playing corresponding Dromios in reversed baseball caps and plaid shorts. The whole thing takes place on Susannah M. Barnes’ graffiti-strewn urban set—a set that has a few little clever surprises locked in it. (Probably one of the most sarcastic sets to be constructed on a local stage all season long.) So the look of it feels very immersive. Beyond the visual immersion, the Rep’s Bomb-itty suffers from the bizarre fusion of the script.

The story itself is an economical 2-hour retelling of the classic Shakespearian comedy with four guys playing all the roles in Payne’s quick-change hip-hop fashion iconography. On the surface, it all plays pretty well—but even coasting along the surface of a light comic hip-hop rendering of Shakespeare gets worn out long before the final bows. The joke of mixing (what many think of as) stuffy, high art with (what just as many think of as) inner-city-born cheap pop is charming enough. The joke wears-off after the first hour, though and the whole thing feels like a weak rush from intermission to the end.

A big problem with the show lies in the fusion itself. In and within the text, Shakespeare’s work has a deft, lyrical and conceptual precision to it that any hip-hop artist would kill for. The man interfaced with language with a fierce purity that it’s difficult to attain in the schizoid pluralism of modern culture. Even a comedy like Errors has a passion within it that is not at all comically at odds with the spirit of rap. Likewise, the best rap achieves a kind of infections economy of narrative verse that Shakespeare would’ve killed for. Those brief lyrical bursts on phantom audio recording were way more concentrated than any coherent lyrical format in Shakespeare’s time. A more perfect fusion of the two would have been positively electric. As it is in the script, Bomb-itty is kind of a campy comedy that could’ve been amazing. At times its hip-hop dressing in the campy drag of comic Shakespeare. At times it’s Shakespeare dressing in the campy drag of hip-hop. Either way, it’s light comedy that could’ve been more. In any case, it’s kind of fun in the right frame of mind.

The cast does a good job of making the mix of the script flow across the stage. As Antipholus of Syracuse, Wayne T. Carr (the black guy in the cast) does a really good job of fusing contemporary moods with epic, Shakespearian energy. And the occasional comedy—he takes on the role of Hassidic Jew Hendelberg with a style that cleverly mixes a very stylish hip-hop beat with the traditional stereotype of an old Jewish guy. On a couple of different occasions, the comedy attempts long walk humor—comedy that is amplified by going a little further than it needs to for a laugh. As Hendelberg, Carr goes into a comically long monologue that actually works, partially because it hits every possible Jewish cultural stereotype, but mostly because Carr is able to keep it charming from beginning to end . . .quite an accomplishment for material that could’ve come across a bit tiresome . . .

Steve Pacek plays Dromio of Syracuse . . . he’s at his best when squaring off opposite Carr as Antipholus. The two hit quite a bit of friction throughout the play—and the antagonism between the two of them is palpably dynamic.

O’Brien spends much of his time as Antipholus of Ephesus. As the white guy alpha male opposite Carr, he carries a corresponding hip-ness. It feels sort of James Dean by way of Eminem. The Dromio to his Antipholus is played by Justin Jain—kind of a wild figure who plays the furthest edge of the comic weirdness to varying degrees of effectiveness. There really isn’t much that can be done of a comic, ineffectual police stereotype, but his elegantly dim Luciana is quite a bit of fun.

Beyond the art of it, the marketing of Bomb-itty feels a bit like an inadvertent ricochet of intent. If this is, as one might be willing to guess, an attempt to appeal to a younger demographic and bring a fresh, new audience in to the Rep, there has to be a corresponding attempt to make it something a younger crowd will want to go to. And while there ARE $20 tickets available for anyone under 40, I can't help but get the feeling that a show like this is going to do more to expose an older audience to hip-hop than a younger one to Shakespeare. This is, of course, no more than speculation. Bomb-itty has a long run and it may yet draw in a new audience that wouldn't normally go to theatre. We can only hope...

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of The Bomb-itty Of Errors runs March 18th – May 8th at the Rep’s Stackner Cabaret. For reservations, call 414-224-9490.

 

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