Bard to Death

Iwas in this school play a couple of weeks ago, but it wasn’t your garden-variety, obscenely boring school play. This was Shakespeare.

I believe you know the Shakespeare to whom I am referring. The one who wrote long, boring plays in about the four hundredth century B.C. in which every single major character, by the end of the play, had either gone nuts, died, or gone nuts and then died. The one who wrote plays containing dirty Elizabethan jokes that make your English teacher gush about what a Comic Genius he was, but that if you were to tell them, in modern English, would get you suspended. The one who didn’t think twice about having any character, major or not, stand onstage and babble on and on about the Meaning of Life, or Anything at All, really, to the point where the other characters, if they were at all normal, would either fall asleep or shoot whoever was talking, but instead they just sit there and let the moron ramble on until the scene abruptly ends and some designated stagehand begins making loud noises in order to wake the audience from its deep slumber. Sometimes, in fact, the stagehand himself would fall asleep during the speech and the audience would wind up staying the night. Sometimes even the actors would fall asleep, including the one who was talking:

“To be, or not to be — that is the quesZZX-XXXZ-ZZZ-ZZXZzz.”

They never tell you that in English class, though.

Anyway, that’s the Shakespeare the Elsinore High School Drama Department decided to perform. Now keep in mind, they didn’t want to do an entire Shakespeare play. That would be cruel. Instead, they decided to do bits and pieces of a few plays — just enough to bore the audience without actually putting them to sleep or angering them into open rebellion.

Another thing they did was to change each of the plays they had selected in order to annoy any English teachers who may have been present. “Macbeth,” for instance, was set in the Civil War era; “Taming of the Shrew” in the old west; and “Romeo and Juliet” in approximately the 1990s. The only one set in the proper time frame was “Hamlet,” which was not Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” but, rather, a fifteen-minute parody written by Tom Stoppard in the 1960s. And surprisingly, none of the plays were boring, which ticked the English teachers no end.

The reason I mention all this is that I was in the plays. To begin with, I played a smart-aleck high school student (if you can believe that!) in the classroom scene that connected all of the plays. From there, I went down into The Pit, from which I operated the smoke machine that was used to prevent the audience from breathing or thinking clearly for the next 45 minutes. After that, I played barroom piano for “Taming of the Shrew.” One of the songs even had three, count ’em three, chords (C major sixth, G diminished seventh, and D minor stupid), a feat that any mentally deficient concert pianist would be proud of.

After intermission, I had the genuine pleasure of portraying Benvolio in “Romeo and Juliet.” Benvolio is a rather ill-defined character whose main duty seems to be sitting on a platform and listening to Mercutio make off-color remarks to Romeo. Rather than just sit and listen, though, I decided to just sit and listen and be drunk, all at the same time, which might have had a profound effect on the audience, had any of them still been conscious after the smoke from “Macbeth.” Mr. Duke was really proud of the smoke, but he was up in the sound booth, out of harm’s way.

After “Romeo and Juliet” came “Fifteen-Minute Hamlet,” with yours truly playing the title role. This is a really great play, mainly because it takes “Hamlet,” which is four hours long, and condenses it to fifteen minutes. That is how Shakespeare was meant to be seen — in fifteen minutes. Whoever it was that just released a movie version of “Hamlet” with Mel Gibson in the lead had the right idea — it was shortened to two hours — but they didn’t go far enough. Our version, on the other hand, probably went too far.

After having the experience of doing Shakespeare, I think I have learned one important thing: that Shakespeare was just a few couplets short of a sonnet, if you sense my meaning.

The rest is silence.

(That last line is from the end of "Hamlet," by the way, after everyone's dead. "The rest is silence," says Osric, and he means it, too.)

This was the first column after my long slump (which lasted from column #27 to column #31), and I still kinda like it. My comments about Benvolio's main purpose being to listen to Mercutio be lewd are actually rather insightful, now that I think about it (and now that I've actually read the entire play). And I really like the part where I say we didn't do an entire Shakespeare play because "that would be cruel." "Cruel" is just a fun word anyway.

"Shakespeare Shorts," as the show was called, was quite a bit of fun for me, and it was my first major production. (I had appeared in some student-directed one act plays the previous spring.) It led to goofy parts in several more productions throughout the rest of my high school career. I was never exactly leading man material, you see. Being not-all-that-tall and not-all-that-handsome, and having a weaselly white man's voice, the most I could hope for was the sarcastic neighbor. But those parts are more fun anyway. Who wants some gorgeous high school beauty kissing you all the time on stage? Who wants to be in EVERY scene, ALWAYS in front of the audience, garnering praise and adoration? Not me, brother. Let me be the guy who walks on and says, "Fish innards? That was my sister!," gets a huge laugh, and walks off again.

"Fifteen-Minute Hamlet," aside from being brilliantly written, was a great deal of fun to perform, though rather tiring. The Garrens Comedy Troupe, which I founded and was a performer in for a while, did "Fifteen-Minute Hamlet" several times -- the only piece we ever did that we ourselves did not write. It was just too good, and too typical of the sort of thing we would do anyway, to pass it up. (It was too good to pay royalties on, too, apparently, since we never did.)