“Shakespeare’s Worst,” a Fringe Curated Series selection at this year’s Capital Fringe Festival, has at least two things in common with “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” the play at its center: The script has an admirable pedigree, and it’s not very good.
The hourlong show — a humorous dissection of “Two Gents” — was written by Mike Reiss, a writer and showrunner for “The Simpsons” in its early days, and Nick Newlin, the man behind the “30-Minute Shakespeare” book series. It’s understandable, then, that the opening night audience was hoping for a clever satire. Instead, the playwrights serve up tired, obvious, and occasionally offensive jokes interspersed with brief scenes from Shakespeare’s original.
They are talented performers, and quite funny.
“Shakespeare,” we are told early on, “is like jazz. It sucks, but everyone pretends to like it.” And “Two Gents” is Shakespeare’s worst, we are told several times as definitive fact, even though there is no scholarly consensus on that point. (It’s certainly in the bottom dozen.)
But no matter; the script assumes we won’t know what’s going on, anyway. The first 10 minutes of “Shakespeare’s Worst” consists mainly of the narrator telling us he has no idea what is going on, because Shakespeare’s language is hard to understand, and no one talks like that. Original stuff.
The narrator is the servant Launce, though while the other actors shift between their characters in the play-within-the-play and those performing this Fringe takedown, Launce steps into his “Two Gents” role only briefly. Instead, we get sub-“Mystery Science Theatre 3000” comments like this: “The men in Shakespeare wear pantyhose. It’s a drag show, and boy, does it drag.” Or this witticism: “What do you call the daughter of a duke? A ‘douche’?”
This is the level of the parody here. Indeed, it gets worse, with cracks about Tom Cruise’s sexual orientation, penny-pinching Jewish theatre buffs, and how “Saturday Night Live” was pretty mediocre a decade ago. Don’t know what any of this has to do with Shakespeare? Neither do I.
But while the material is bad, director Bridget Grace Sheaff has assembled a talented cast. As Launce, Chris Stinson does herculean work squeezing what laughter he can from this thin soup. While he often carries the show along on his own — he has maybe half the lines, often in monologues — the rest of the company performs laudably as well.
Raven Bonniwell plays hapless Julia, and gets the show’s best moment when Launce puts her “on mute” during an oration and she skillfully continues to emote in silence. Nina Marti also shines as the harried actor playing both Lucetta and Sylvia.
It’s telling that most of the cast has performed straight Shakespeare in the past. They are talented performers, and quite funny. Maybe they should try their quills at writing their own Shakespeare parody.
Running Time: 55 minutes.
Advisory: Recommended for all ages.
“Shakespeare’s Worst” at Arena Stage Strawberry, 1101 Sixth Street SW in Washington, will run through July 21. For tickets and more information, click here.