Every September, the Philadelphia FringeArts Festival takes over the city, producing bold new works of contemporary visual and performing arts and uniting artists directly with audiences. Despite having aged slightly out of the "contemporary" category, noted playwright William Shakespeare still manages to make an appearance through Derek Davidson's transformative Kill Will, in a production by the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre.
As the Tarantino-esque name suggests, Kill Will presents itself as a sort of Greatest Hits compilation of Shakespearean violence and death. It is framed by the antics of a quirky cast who quickly establish – with the assassination of the Chorus from Henry V mid-prologue – that no text is too sacred to mock. However, their enthusiasm for the gruesome deaths, thrilling fight scenes, and physical comedy of Shakespeare's plays appears entirely genuine: while they take great delight in making jokes at his expense, they take equal delight in faithfully bringing the Bard's words and direction to life.
Davidson's script covers a whole range of plays. The tragedies are predictably well-represented: Macbeth, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet – even the fatal dinner party of Titus and Dronicus [sic]. However, these are complemented with slightly less gruesome but no less exciting scenes from the comedies. Mercutio's death scene from Romeo and Juliet is immediately followed by Shakespeare's mirthfully tragic take on the play's inspiration, Pyramus and Frisbee [also sic], excerpted in all its community theater glory from A Midsummer Night's Dream. The climactic battle with Macduff at the end of Macbeth segues to the slightly less lethal battle of Orlando and Charles in the wrestling match at the beginning of As You Like It, which in turn gives way to the battle of the sexes in the wooing scene of The Taming of the Shrew, and finally ends up in a battle of honor in Twelfth Night between Viola and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, neither of whom wish to be battling at all. Even the histories make a showing (besides the rather abortive attempt at the beginning of the play), as Henry's meditation on the horrors of war from Henry VI, Part III provides a needed contrast between the catharsis of fictional violence and the serious consequences of real conflict.
As promised, the "killer fight scenes" are the main focus of the play. These are excellently choreographed by fight director Michael Cosenza and co-fight director William "Bill" LeDent: fast-moving and dynamic bouts of stage fighting (unless, of course, they're in stylized slow motion) that allow the actors to show off their skills with everything from daggers to rapiers to broadswords. No less exciting are the weaponless bouts, as when Orlando (Deaon Griffin-Pressley) and Charles (LeDent) begin a wrestling match and end in a stage-punching beatdown more like a bar brawl, or when Katharina (Julia Jensen Ray) and Petruchio (Aaron Kirkpatrick) battle for dominance with seamless slapstick.
The costumes and set design keep the attention on the action. The actors wear their own casual dress, mostly t-shirts and sweatpants (cunningly concealing their kneepads). The set, designed by Bethanie Wampol, has been recycled from the PST's spring production of Midsummer, with its simple thrust stage and single line of archways along the backdrop. The bright blue and green paint matches the vibrancy of the actors' energy, while the dramatic blood-red lighting on the backdrop keeps the play's central concern in the audience's perception.
However, what could have seemed like a parade of meaningless assaults sans context is instead firmly supported by Davidson's judicious textual editing and framing. While some of the adaptations of Shakespeare's scenes are introduced with brief summaries, many rely only on the original dialogue and manage to convey the heart of the characters' mental and spiritual conflicts before they even get to physical ones. Meanwhile, Davidson's framing device is witty and amusingly low-key, focusing as it does on a group of actors performing fight scenes and cracking wise about Shakespeare.
Director Kevin McGuire keeps a firm hand on the pacing, which is exciting without being frenetic. Tragedy is played off comedy; fight sequences alternate with discussions of each play's bodycount, jokes about flesh-/fish-/cheese-mongering, and the Death Secondhand segment. In this more somber sequence, Ray (Gertrude), Griffin-Pressley (Edgar), and LeDent (Macbeth) get a chance to showcase their monologuing skills as they recite the accounts of Ophelia, Gloucester, and Lady Macbeth's untimely demises.
Such segments highlight that, in addition to being excellent stage fighters, all the actors are immensely talented over the whole of Shakespeare's range. Ray, for example, plays Gertrude as distant yet motherly, stroking the hair of Laertes (Steve Wei) as she recounts his sister's fate with a stately grief. As Katharina she is sarcastic and spiteful – and possessing a palpable chemistry with Petruchio (Kirkpatrick), even as she slaps, spits at, and scrambles away from him. That same comic timing yields a hilarious Andrew Aguecheek, whose duel with Viola (Wei) shows a mastery of faint-hearted fencing that is the polar opposite of Ray's Tybalt and his deliberate and aggressive skill.
The entire cast is immensely likable, and their enthusiasm shines through even in their non-Shakespeare scenes. Whether through acting or ad-libbing, their roles come off as highly personalized, and they make the running gags about Wei's obsession with staging Hamlet or Zach Aguilar's preoccupation with the word "swain" seem like an in-joke with the audience that's as entertaining as Shakespeare's wordplay. The show isn't perfect: while each individual actor delivers an excellent performance, the otherwise diverse cast possesses the antiquated gender ratio of a superhero team-up, and a few jokes seem to rely solely on the innate "hilarity" of men pretending to be women (which is particularly hypocritical given the original productions of Shakespeare's works). However, these external factors don't ruin the experience of watching the plays-within-a-play unfold.
Any one of the scenes could easily be expanded into an engaging full-length production of its originator. (Indeed, Kirkpatrick reprises his role as Wall from the PST's earlier production of Midsummer – though with an entirely different, yet equally hilarious, interpretation.) It is the earnestness of McGuire and the cast that makes this production work. By placing an equal emphasis on action, comedy, and tragedy, they suggest that they love their fight scenes because they value all of Shakespeare's contributions; conversely, that makes the fight scenes worthy of the same care devoted to Shakespeare's words and themes. While they do show the danger of a production glorifying stage combat at the expense of the play's other elements (Wei's long-awaited rendition of Hamlet, which shows the title character's decisive and effective roaring rampage of revenge, is hilariously out-of-character), they demonstrate the opposite problem as well. A schoolmarm (Ray) hobbles out and insists that Shakespeare was a poet first and a playwright second, and that the trappings of a play – acting, sets, costumes, and yes, fight scenes – cannot possibly compare to the majesty of his words. Such coldly analytical attitudes, the audience is told with great solemnity, are the only thing that can truly "kill Will".
Fortunately, the joyless pedant is then repeatedly stabbed, Caesar-like, by the rest of the cast. The play closes with a sonnet insisting that as long as there are artists and audiences having fun and creatively engaging with his work, "Will lives still". With a truly entertaining manifesto on the value of Shakespeare, fights and all, Kill Will and the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre are certainly doing their part to aid in his immortality.
Kill Will, directed by Kevin McGuire, runs September 15 - September 19, 2015 at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater, 2111 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103. For more information, please visit http://www.phillyshakespeare.org