Mom said I could quote her, so, “They had me right up until the virgin sacrifice and the song about the anti-Christ. After that, they kind of lost me.”
When disgruntled actor Peter (Philip C. Matthews) unleashes a barn-burning diatribe against the unending parade of productions of the plays of Shakespeare that goes viral online worldwide, it somehow triggers the end of the world, aka Shakespeare Apocalypse: A New Musical. This is brought about by Shakespeare himself (Adam Rousar), along with his famous sidekicks Jane Austen (Lisa Bol) and Ernest Hemingway (Scot Moore). They sold their souls to the devil in order to achieve literary immortality. When that immortality is threatened, they strike back. Peter’s fellow actor – and inevitable love interest – Amy (Jill Iverson) has to kick some butt, and instill some courage in Peter to do the same, in order to try to prevent the apocalypse. Arts video blogger Tracy (Peyton McCandless) keeps trying to post and tweet even as the world unravels around her and she gets caught up in the evil trio’s plot against humanity.
The cast is amazing. Matthews has a voice that’ll blow you out of your seat, and Iverson and McCandless are ready to match him note for note, even if their characters don’t get as many chances to shine. The villains of the piece, as always, threaten to steal the show from our heroes. Rousar is hilariously fey as Shakespeare – and yes, normally something like that would tend to rub me the wrong way, but Shakespeare is so clearly in control at all times and so delightfully evil that I don’t mind. This effeminate fellow is no one’s victim, and his habit of speaking his stage directions aloud always made me laugh. Bol’s turn as Jane Austen is wonderfully butch and disdainful. Moore’s Hemingway admits right up front that he doesn’t sing, which gets one of the bigger laughs in a show full of them.
So what’s wrong? That’s harder to pin down. Director and choreographer Ben Layne guides the whole thing along at a very high energy level, which is just what it needs. Writer and music director Keith Hovis is ridiculously talented and his songs are all, you’ll pardon the expression, clever as hell. And who among us hasn’t rolled his eyes at the preponderance of Shakespeare on Twin Cities stages, and parks, all year long (#downwiththebard)? Shakespeare Apocalypse also can’t be accused of not following through on its dark premise right to the very end.
Weirdly enough, even though the script itself even calls out white male privilege a couple of times, it also falls victim to it – starting with our hero, and concluding with the final body count of who lives and who dies. Also, there’s a fine line between homage and piggybacking on someone else’s work. Shakespeare Apocalypse opens with a strategy (and song style) lifted right out of Little Shop of Horrors (though, to its credit, it’s not trying to make a secret of the fact). It also riffs on the song stylings and lyrics of Jonathan Larson and Stephen Sondheim and does so with great skill. I guess the production left me wondering, now that Hovis got his Shakespearean animus out of his system, and has thoroughly hopscotched all over the work of other great modern musical theater talents, what’s he going to do next (other than the sequel)? Still, if you love musicals at Fringe time, and don’t mind a little disemboweling, Shakespeare Apocalypse is enormously entertaining and something you should see for yourself.
4.5 stars, Very Highly Recommended