Spencer Korcz & Rachel Allen In William Shakespeare’s Star Wars.
Photo courtesy of The Alley Theater
William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope
By Ian Doescher
Directed by Joey Arena
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved
Crazy and subversive, the notion of penning Star Wars as if written by William Shakespeare is ideally suited to an unusually apt parody. Ian Doescher has adapted six of the series, all in iambic pentameter and in the style of the Bard of Avon. In the afterword to this first in the series, he talks about the connective thread of Joseph Campbell in both, but I will not dwell on such an academic relationship here.
The text is intelligent, spoofing Shakespeare and Star Wars in equal measure by expertly balancing the iconic details of both. I once attended a private reading of this script in full delivered by a top-notch cast and part of the fun was how utterly silly some of the Star Wars scenes sound when cast as Elizabethan dialogue. Doescher never allows the iambic pentameter to elevate the original so much as hear it with fresh sensibilities. What was risible in George Lucas’ original screenplay remains so here.
Director Joey Arena has judiciously cut the text down from what would likely be three and one half hours, not atypical for Shakespeare, to a manageable two hours plus fifteen minute intermission, and what is noticeably missing are primarily action sequences that have might have proven difficult to stage anyway. The look of the production is a fair representation of the original fantasy design aesthetic but with its own character and quality. Darth Vader doesn’t look like the version from movies, but he functions well in this context, as does C-3P0. I respect that the design work established its own identity, referencing the look of the original enough to satisfy die-hard fans but planting its own flag. A clever scrolling backdrop of black & white scenic art that echoed the illustrations in Doescher’s book nicely reinforced the concept.
Best of all on that score was R2-D2 being portrayed by Susan Crocker, maneuvering around on a modified big wheel with a toy pennywhistle nicely emulating the tiny droid’s digital language. The character could have been attempted as a static prop, but this inspired choice was a highlight, and Crocker’s balance of naïve, wide-eyed innocence with insightful commentary made this the best performance of the evening. I also loved Joseph Ball’s Chewbacca, which, again, made no effort to replicate the hirsute giant but maintained the integrity of the character as a loyal comrade-in-arms with the appropriate vocalizations but an individual physical presence that included a Mohawk haircut.
The cast overall did solid work, and took advantage of Scott Goodman as Luke Skywalker and J.P. Lebangood as Han Solo, both repeating roles they have long mastered in a much different fashion in Star Wars in 60 Minutes or Less, (returning to The Alley in March). Goodman seemed relaxed enough, but Lebangood took a little longer to loosen up with the language, but both were pros. Craig Nolan Highley also reflected opening night struggles with the language, but brought nice authority to his Obi-Wan Kenobi. Judging the language here is a very different exercise than in actual Shakespeare, since the delivery often came with a nod and wink to the deliberate paraphrasing of famous lines:
I am Fortune’s fool. ‘Tis true, ‘tis true,
And gazing now upon the double sun
Of my home Tatooine,
But there was just enough focus on the story and intention to get by, although the production does depend on the assumed familiarity with the source material for narrative coherence – how can it not?
I also liked Ann-Claude Rakotonianina as Princess Leia, and Miss Rakatonianina’s diminutive scale did not prevent her from setting the fiercest warrior’s stance of the ensemble when she was called upon to do double duty as one of the X-Wing pilots in the climactic battle. Seriously, the rest of the men in this sequence need to take notes on what she is doing in that moment. Otherwise the staging of the finale is cleverly done, although, again, it absolutely relies on our understanding of the very specific physicality of that scene in the original movie, but go see for yourself.
Andrew Hoehler was Darth Vader, so we never saw his face, but his words were clear even through the custom designed face mask, and Riker Hill was very good as C-3PO, capturing the effete superciliousness of the character on his own terms. Marc McHone brought authority and clarity to the Chorus. Chris Petty, Patrick Alred, and Jacob Hall were solid enough as Empirical officers, which meant that they were fairly undeveloped and colorless, making theirs the thankless roles here.
In the end WSSW is a pretty good production that is almost better than it has a right to be, but will likely find its groove quickly now that it has begun its four-week run. There are stretches that play as nothing more than adequate, and moments that seem inspired. One of the best of the evening is a complete departure from the Star Wars narrative; an exchange of seemingly idle discussion between two Storm troopers (Spencer Korcz & Rachel Allen) guarding the Millennium Falcon that is a clear nod to minor characters Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, who famously became the centerpiece of Tom Stoppard’s existentialist masterpiece, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. It is in such moments that William Shakespeare’s Star Wars rises above the kind of culture parody that is such a crucial part of The Alley’s identity, sometimes to their detriment. But Joey Arena’s staging shows a lot of work and thoughtfulness, and most of it pays off.
William Shakespeare’s Star Wars
February 18 – March 2, 2016
Tickets $25 ($20 for students / seniors / military)
The Alley Theater
615 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.