This year, Falstaff Productions teams with Bucharest Inside the Beltway to present Louis James Brenner’s Better A Witty Fool. The title is an homage to William Shakespeare’s line, delivered by the Clown in Twelfth Night: “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.” In this production, there’s hardly a difference between the two.
Eleven of the Bard’s characters have been transplanted into the 2016 Presidential Election. Three of them vie for the party nomination: Titania (Mollie Goff), Bianca (Erin Gallalee), and Coriolanus (Michael Puzan). Meanwhile, their campaign teams struggle to contain the candidates’ larger-than-life personalities with just enough force and manipulation to secure the nomination.
If any of this sounds familiar, perhaps you caught an earlier variation at Fringe 2015, by the same playwright. (Or you occasionally pay attention to the 24-hour news cycle.) Unlike last year, however, the principle characters are heavily inspired by the current presidential candidates (Titania as Hillary and Bianca as Trump).
Yet, the play is not quite a Shakespeare adaptation… And not quite a political satire, either. If it were a true parody, one might be tempted to recall David Belke’s The Maltese Bodkin. However, unlike a parody, these reborn characters retain very little of their namesakes beyond their titles. In many instances, the interpretations of such well-known classics flew in the face of their veracity and the overly complicated the plot.
For example, Falstaff is here presented as a suave and egotistical political campaign strategist, bent on returning to his former glory in the White House. Yet, Falstaff of Henry V is a drunk who talks tall, yet hardly delivers on his word, and spends his time goading Prince Hal towards mischief. The new Falstaff and the old Falstaff read as entirely different people. Also troubling was the unexplained change in Polonius and Ophelia’s relationship. They engage in immature and suggestive text conversations during several of their scenes, often making fun of Titania in sexist or sexual language. Seeing as Polonius is supposed to be Ophelia’s father, the whole exchange feels more creepy, less funny. And Ophelia doesn’t seem fazed by any of it. Finally, the decision to make Katerina the “Shrew,” who resisted being tamed, into Bianca’s push-over, ditzy, and conservative campaign manager is simply too frustrating to endure.
Better a Witty Fool
Written by Louis James Brenner
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What could have been the show’s saving grace is its dry and cynical humor. While the tone is right, the text does not always meet the bar. The more outrageous the character, the easier it seems to land on the ear. While the handful of clever one-liners and physical comedy moments were met with decent audience reception, the jokes that fell flat were met with exaggerated, live ‘canned laughter’ from the tech booth that only further emphasized the gap between the successful and unsuccessful marks.
All of this begs the question: why draw the connection? What purpose does the presence of this or that Shakespearean character actually add to this story? I asked myself this question for each character, and for most of them, an answer was not obvious. If Benner did not want to maintain at least the basics of these literary figures’ codified histories, he should have left their names out of it. Instead, the allusion further muddles the plot and the message, and does very little to support the denouement. Simply put, this was an ambitious stylistic choice, but it was not executed successfully.
I must take this final moment to acknowledge and commend Gallalee and Goff on their dynamic and truly entertaining performances. Gallalee commanded attention with such ignorant charm that complimented her Trump wig and tanning bed-stained face with frightening accuracy. Goff chose to emphasize particular physicality and personality quirks that are often associated with Clinton, such as her awkward conversational skills or her hand gestures, with equally measurable success. Each actor walked the line between cartoon, caricature, and reflection with just the right amount of bravado, even if that meant leaving the Shakespeare portion of their character to the wayside. That choice is perhaps exactly what made them stand out from among the rest.
Better A Witty Fool by Louis James Brenner . Director: Eddie Page . Cast: Melanie Jennings-Bales, Kelli Biggs, Gary Cramer, Erin Gallalee, Mollie Goff, Emily Golden, Larry Grey, Robert Heinly, Peter Orvetti, Michael Puzan, Cal Whitehurst, and Nora Zanger . Costume, Hair, & Makeup Designer: Susan Boyd . Lighting Designer: Michael Boyd . Set, Sound Designer, Props, and Video Production: Eddie Page . Stage Manager: Kirstin Apker . Produced by Falstaff Productions and Bucharest Inside the Beltway . Reviewed by Lucette Moran.