It’s the 447th birthday of William Shakespeare, so what better way to commemorate the occasion than for the Long Beach Shakespeare Company to present three radio programs and a play based on Shakespeare characters and one of the actors that brought his words to life? While each production doesn’t have the grandeur, the elevated language, and the drama of the Bard’s original work, they do show the breadth and depth of his influence up to the present day. When an 18-year-old writes a play that features Shakespeare’s most famous couples, you know that his is a gift that will reward generations to come.
The stories aren’t complicated. They’re very short: all four vignettes clock in at just over an hour. You’re held in thrall by the cleverness of the conception, the good acting, and the bare bones staging.
Though the characters in Shakespeare are often larger than life, here they’re portrayed as just plain folks. Whether each piece involves an interaction between a literary agent with a pressing deadline and an author, a Shakespeare actor who has fallen on hard times, or couples with the same sort of issues as the rest of us, you get the sense that, in this context, the actors aren’t really acting, per se, they’re living. This makes the evening especially relevant to our daily lives.
Three of the pieces are set up as radio programs.
“Is Shakespeare Dead?” features Carl Wawrina as Mark Twain. He recounts a story from his riverboat days with a boss who, reciting long passages of Shakespeare from memory, would intersperse frantic commands (“Avoid the oily water!”) to the young pilot.
In “Behind the Scenes,” Mike Austin is a literary agent who cajoles his author (Carl Wawrina) to crank out something fast that will grab the audience’s attention. Nell Manning (Summer Gorbea) provides nifty, this-just-in commentary. As it turns out, the author is none other than Mr William Shakespeare. The piece that had to be filled with family strife and blood? Hamlet.
Drawn from an actual radio episode from “Gunsmoke,” this piece again features Gorbea as the Announcer, as well as several other roles. Matt Dillon (Austin) tries to solve the mystery of a stranger, Wawrina, who is found near death in the desert. His identity, his mission, and the nature of his crime will surprise you.
Lauren Velsco’s “Fortune’s Fools” playlet poses and answers the intriguing question, “What if three of Shakespeare’s celebrated couples got together for couples therapy?” Austin is the Therapist. You’ve got moody and petulant Romeo (Eric Fore) and Juliet (Cariss Wright). You’ve got otherworldly Hamlet (David Narloch) and Ophelia (Nasi Nassiri). And you’ve got the fire and brimstone Othello (Wawrina) and Desdemona (Gorbea), all of who look like prime candidates for a Jerry Springer reunion.
The evening reminds us how Shakespeare has been integrated into our high- and low-brow cultural consciousness. While the evening may not the stuff that moves heaven and Earth, it is a nice way to celebrate a birthday: entertaining and full of surprises.
Performances are 8pm, Fri. & Sat. The show runs until Apr. 30. Tickets are $10-20. The Theatre is located at 4250 Atlantic Ave. For more info call 437-1443 or visit www.lbshakespeare.org.