Antares has a hoot attending the Bard’s 439th birthday bash at the Securities Commission
It was a wonderful surprise to find printed instructions enjoining the April 23rd opening night audience at The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) to pay tribute to the Bard of Avon on his 439th birthday by donning a party hat, popping a banger, and singing “Happy Birthday, Dear Willy” at the end of the show – on pain of “grievous embarrassment.”
The evening, of course, was peppered with Willy jokes and supercharged with madcap humor as a trio of ace performers took on the supreme challenge of performing all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays in 97 minutes flat. Frankly, I was expecting something slapstick and silly in the vein of the 1960s Carry On series – but the results far exceeded expectations and left everyone feeling light-hearted, highly fortunate and well entertained.
What made it all work so marvelously well was the suave and literate script by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, exhilaratingly interpreted by three versatile virtuosos – Ezra Bix and the Schwerdt brothers, Berynn and Tim – under the crisp and crafty direction of John Saunders. Such fast-paced ensemble work demands a great deal of inventiveness, physical stamina and well-grounded technique from the actors, and no one could have asked for a better matched team than Bix, Schwerdt and Schwerdt.
NIDA-trained Ezra Bix, perhaps the most seasoned of the trio, cut his stage teeth with the Australian Shakespeare Company and as a stand-up comedian, apart from extensive work in film and TV. He looks a bit like Bruce Willis – and like Willis, can play just about anyone including himself. His impeccable timing and reassuring stage presence were most obvious when he was “abandoned” by the Schwerdt brothers for several minutes and had the stage all to himself. His portrayal of an actor “left in the lurch” and forced to improvise was absolutely a gem (we got a couple of classic one-liners from Ezra, my favorite being: “What do you call a joke that doesn’t work? … A public servant?”)
Berynn Schwerdt reminded me of a young Sir John Gielgud, the venerable Shakespearean actor; with his gaunt, gangly good looks and histrionic voice, Berynn consummately anchored the “Shakespearean” ambience on stage. His wide and varied acting experience runs the gamut from musicals, dramas, comedies, television, film and opera to commercials, guerrilla theater, theater-in-education, puppetry and agit-prop performance. Being the tallest of the three, it fell to Berynn to play the tragically flawed authority figure – a rôle he carried with effortless grace and masterful confidence.
Berynn’s younger brother Tim is endowed with a rubbery, Robin Williamsian face and the mischievous charm of the eternal adolescent. Tim took on most of the drag rôles and contributed generously to the school-boyish high jinks – including bringing on stage a mechanized Godzilla, drowning himself (as Ophelia) with a mug of water, and pretending to vomit on a girl in the front row. His stage tantrums were very much part of the fun and frolic, but his amazing sensitivity as a serious actor came through briefly when he upstaged Berynn by “stealing” one of his soliloquies.
An intrinsic part of the magic was the ingenious way the three actors played themselves playing a hundred different Shakespeare characters, or fragments thereof. It was absolutely essential that the trio win over the audience right from the outset, which gave them artistic licence to Monty Pythonize the Bard’s venerated lines without giving offence to the true believers. The original version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) was performed by the infamous RSC (Reduced Shakespeare Company) in 1987. Its Shakespeare-according-to-the-Marx-Brothers approach was an immediate hit. In 1993 the production opened in London and has gone on to earn itself the epithet, “London’s Longest Running Comedy.”
The trio inserted some local color with a few well-chosen Malay phrases and a smattering of Malaysian allusions, including at least one Singaporean joke. It was no mean feat getting the entire audience to enter the spirit of total silliness but Bix, Schwerdt and Schwerdt managed it like trained facilitators at an Asiaworks seminar. They split the crowd into four sections and coaxed and cajoled us into playing various parts of Ophelia’s troubled psyche. I was part of the father aspect that had to shout: “Get thee to a nunnery!” Another section, the mother aspect, had to yell something even wilder: “Sudahlah! My biological clock’s ticking (jabbing at wristwatches real or imaginary)… and I want to have a baby NOW!!!”
The trio even managed to take a verbal swipe at Bush and Cheney and milk a chortle or two out of the current SARS-phobia (the nurse in Romeo and Juliet comes out in an all-too-familiar surgical mask). The script itself encourages a fair amount of ad-libbing and is engagingly self-aware and street savvy. Imagine the tragedy of Othello retold in rap, or Titus Andronicus as a TV culinary series, or Hamlet played backwards – and you’ll have a rough idea what to expect. But be prepared to be taken even farther out on a comedic limb. This is an evening of inspired madness you won’t regret (provided you have the budget for it).
We’re tickled pink that HSBC, in conjunction with IMG, Tim Woods and Spirit Entertainment have decided it was time KL theatergoers got a taste of the exciting possibilities of Shakespeare as pure farce. The choice of venue was an intriguing but successful one: this was my first experience of the Securities Commission Auditorium – and I must say it proved to be a splendid setting for Willy’s 439th birthday bash. Virtual bouquets galore to the indomitable trio of Bix, Schwerdt and Schwerdt.
25 April 2003