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Laughing in Shakespeare's Shadow 

Cal Poly Humboldt's Something Rotten!

click to enlarge Sophia Escudero, Jaese Lecuyer and Zoe Saylor in Something Rotten!

Courtesy of Cal Poly Humboldt

Sophia Escudero, Jaese Lecuyer and Zoe Saylor in Something Rotten!

It only took close to 500 years for a musical that enacts my unpopular opinion that Shakespeare has become a model of elite and pompous thespian culture in which good acting is determined by mere participation, historically documented BIPOC people of the period apparently didn't exist (except for that one guy) and migraine-inducing word salads understood by only his cult comprise "the best plays ever written." The musical number "God, I Hate Shakespeare" in Cal Poly Humboldt's production of Something Rotten! spoke to my soul. The show brilliantly capitalizes on laughing with and at musical theater thespians at the expense of 'ol Bill. If you are not one of these people, it is recommended that you identify and sit next to them to share/wonder at the inside-joke-gaffaws.

The plot of Something Rotten! by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell, with music and lyrics by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick is straightforward: The brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom (Austin Maisler and Jeremy Stolp) struggle to write a new show with the eminence of Shakespeare imbued in everything theater. The only person unimpressed by the Bard is Nick, who obsesses over creating a production better than Will's — the simple motive leading to a journey full of zany characters.

The success of the show is largely determined by the strength of those characters and the supporting cast doesn't disappoint. It is hard to imagine anyone playing Brother Jeremiah, the God-loving Puritan whose Bible quotes feel ... uh .... sexy, more skillfully than Pablo Murcia, whose portrayal is worth your ticket. Sadly, there are no interactions between him and Nostradamus, whom Sammi Pietanza physically represents with just the right amount of too-damn-much as they sooth-say for a desperate Nick. That balance was also achieved by Shylock (Garrett Vallejo), the Jewish would-be financier of the Bottom brothers' acting troupe. Vallejo's opening monologue professing "my religion is theater" is worthy of the raucous applause that will undoubtedly come after resolving opening night timing issues. As Nick's wife Bea, Miah Carter delivers an effortless and hilarious "mood swings" line with a natural and committed acting style. Samantha Talley's Portia (Nigel's love interest and daughter of Brother Jeremiah) reminds me of Kristin Chenoweth perma-smiling as a classic Disney princess in an incredible spoof. In addition, Katie Lem as Lady Clapham had the best timing of the evening, giving her boisterous lines space to milk every laugh.

The unfortunate "character choice" some performers make to act bored or uncertain, robbing energy that could go to the audience, is easily fixed. Still, they do invest in the titillatingly slimy introduction of Shakespeare (played by Jaese Lecuyer). Emerging from a cloud of smoke in a glam rock spectacle of familiar bard quotes, Lecuyer plays to feed the ensemble, connecting better with the audience during his fantastic rendition of "Hard to be the Bard." Likewise, Stolp's Nick is a beautiful exploration of physical theater, with a successful Dell'Arte-esque approach. He's balanced by a refined Maisler, who embodied his character so well one could believe him a rosy cheeked innocent in real life. The pair create funny moments — particularly with a hyperventilating bit used throughout the show — and some beautiful acting.

There is plenty in Carrie Walpole's choreography to keep you entertained throughout what long to be lavish production numbers. A few players took it to the next level in their freestyling (particularly in "Make an Omelette"), producing the Hyphie, Backpack Boy's Floss, Jerking and the Nae Nae. These dances tied to specific performances are refreshing to see when many of the iconic musical dances were overlooked even when referenced. Luckily, Pietanza gave me some of what I was eager to see in their movements.

Robert Pickering's stationary (save for a slip stage staircase) Old Globe Theatre set served its purpose and highlighted the era's style. I hoped one of only two fly systems in three counties would have been better utilized to speed set changes. Michael Johnson's lighting design isolating the colors of towers and the set's geometry breathes much needed life and interest, as the audience is asked to see it as multiple locations.

Elisabeth Harrington's musical direction gives the unsure and arhythmic among the cast tools to be successful, and the live band — after hearing too much canned music or no musicals at all — is a success by its inclusion, and a testament to her professionalism and ambition.

Not enough can be said about Rae Robison's costume designs, with comedy, character and detail woven into every rendering. Viewing Shakespeare with an open shirt and bare chest speaks loudly to her ability to decipher deeper meanings, down to the detail of the codpieces and the lack of one on sweet Nigel. Bright pink socks here, a slightly too-short Puritan tunic there — Easter eggs abound.

Director Michael Thomas, with his wise casting, brilliant production heads and expert experience, has put together a successful and ambitious show amid a pandemic. COVID has changed the way we relate and express ourselves. Keep that in mind when you go see this production because its staging alone is worthy of your support and standing ovation. Everything else is promised, too, with exuberance, joy and belly laughs.

Cal Poly Humboldt's Something Rotten! plays at the Van Duzer Theater Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. through April 3. Visit www.theatre.humboldt.edu.

Tiggerbouncer Custodio (he/she/they) is an empowered queer Indigenous Filipino artist whose works have been seen on Humboldt stages and elsewhere.

NOW PLAYING

Ferndale Repertory Theatre's production of Man of La Mancha spins its yarns Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through April 11. Call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.

COMING SOON

The Arcata Playhouse's Family Fun Series begins March 31 and frontloads April with storytelling, clowns, fiddling and circus performances under the big top tent in the Creamery District. Contact venue for current COVID protocols. Call 822-1575 or visit www.arcataplayhouse.org.

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