Danish danger

The Hamlet Apocalypse (The Danger Ensemble)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

August 9 – 19

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“Hamlet” represents one of the stage’s greatest challenges. The complex work’s sense of reality is shaped by powerful, poetic words and language with some of the most popular lines ever written, and there is the challenge of its duration as the longest of Shakespeare’s plays. The Danger Ensemble’s contemporary performance about an ensemble of actors (Chris Beckey, Caroline Dunphy, Nicole Harvey, Thomas Hutchins, Polly Sara, Peta Ward and Mitch Wood) staging the play on the eve of the apocalypse may be much shorter (though still with room for Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and a horse) than its source material, but is as complex as ever as the play unravels and more of the actors’ real-life personal revelations and fears begin to emerge; they have a version of “Hamlet” that they have rehearsed, but as a countdown gets closer to zero the show has to be abridged and personal issues sorted.

Presenting any derivative of “Hamlet” is always going to be a trial of strength. And “The Hamlet Apocalypse” certainly realises its intention of taking the play of ideas to a new and exciting place. Although it is probably best appreciated by those familiar enough with the original text to be able to follow the now-fragmented narrative, this can also work to its disadvantage as the loss of much of the play’s musical language and dramatic poetry is lamented.

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This is a “Hamlet” for the now generation, in which the line between fiction and reality blurs. It’s not an easy transition, however, the experimental work keeps a sense of tragedy in its performers’ breaks of the fourth wall. There is still touch on themes of the power of death and the value of life, but humour too, added to, rather than derived from within the text. Usually it works, such as in a hilarious group ‘imaginary eating’ scene. At other times, however, it is at the expense of key moments and emotional expression, such as when Hamlet’s Act Two share of his descent into worthless melancholy is overshadowed, visually and verbally by a background Claudius and Gertrude spitting wine over each other.

A show of such layering, theatricality and physicality, of course, needs a skilled cast and in this regard there are no weak links. Thomas Hutchins makes for a commanding new King Claudius, second husband to Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Caroline Dunphy) in contrast to his constant line-reminder interjections to others as ‘himself’. As the titular Hamlet, Mitch Wood gives a fine performance that provides feel more of frustration than introspection. And Chris Beckey gives a nuanced performance that makes for a memorable visual presence, often absorbed as one with the aesthetic.

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The show’s aesthetics are absorbing thanks to the sophisticated shading of Ben Hughes’ lighting design and Oscar Clark’s detailed, yet versatile costumes. Together, they make early scenes particularly stylistic in the slow-motion sensibility that acts in contrast to the big, hot mess of its conclusion (#inagoodway). Constantly we are reminded that we are watching a play. Indeed, never can the audience relax into the work, especially in the cresendoing chaos of concluding scenes as our attention is torn from ‘character’ to ‘character’ in simultaneous competition for our focus. And while the blinding visual flash and screeching soundscape countdown from ten to one that punctuates proceedings continues as novelty throughout, eliciting disruptive audience responses, this is probably the point.

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“The Hamlet Apocalypse” may be ‘Hamlet but not as you know it’, but it represents all that is interesting about experimental theatre and the essence of Director Steven Mitchell Wright’s characteristic vision, last seen the company’s wicked “Macbeth”.  Its rich all-encompassing aesthetic makes for rewarding theatrical experience. And in celebration of The Danger Ensemble’s ten year anniversary, it is an excellent choice of show for a return season.

Photos c/o – Morgan Roberts Photography

Contemporary connections

Swallow (E.G. & Metro Arts)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

May 25 – June 3

In story, “Swallow” is about when strangers cross paths. Thematically, however, the work gives audiences so much more to contemplate. And the result is a challenging but rewarding experience thanks to the excellent execution by all involved in the production.

Hermitted in her home, Anna (Elise Greig) is in need to focus, frenetically completing self-decided projects in search for peace, yet yearning to travel to places she will never go. For her, going crazy is busy business, especially when you’ve been shut up inside for a couple of years and who said smashing things up was a bad thing anyway? In an apartment somewhere below her, Rebecca (Julie Cotterell) is recovering, both physically and emotionally, from a nasty breakup with an arsehole ex, comfortable in her pain. Then there is Sam (Helen O’Leary), who has found identity but not acceptance. While each is struggling, having been smashed up by life, in discovery of each other, they just might be able to save one another.

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The journeys of each of the three characters are fragmented, but as an audience we still engage with them, because of, rather than despite their flaws. This is thanks to the outstanding performances of all three cast members; their performances are so riveting to watch that we become invested in their stories even from the play’s enigmatic start.

Staging is sparse but detailed with jumbles of broken materials around each character’s initial space. Things are not static, however, with each character constantly moving, even when not directly involved in a scene. Lighting design builds from darkness in support of this, using shadows to create interesting shapes, which works with the appropriately evocative soundscape to create a memorable aesthetic. Everything is beautifully deliberate as character stories slowly intersect. Poetic monologues parallel and intersect through common and revisited metaphors and motifs of isolation and fragmentation of items and understandings alike, established in initial scenes before narrative interconnection is appreciated.

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Stef Smith’s writing is dense but also lyrical in is creativity and Kate Shearer’s directorial decisions are so detailed as to desire a further viewing to appreciate all of the nuances of choice, like to have fragile feathers falling as snow in reference to earlier dialogue mentions. Indeed, “Swallow” takes audiences to unexpected and unique places in its share of relevant messages around the importance of real relationships and the quality contemporary connectivity that lies elusively behind closed doors and smartphone screens.

In its clever storytelling and reminder to the person reflected in our mirrors to blink and breathe, “Swallow” provides a wonderful message for audiences to take away. Its holistic approach to storytelling and all-round excellent execution, make it a modern tale that everyone should see as reminder that theatre, like people, is not homogeneous, and is all the better for it.

Photos – c/o Nick Morrissey

Something very wicked this way comes

Macbeth (The Danger Ensemble)

Queensland Academy for Creative Industries

February 9 – 25

When The Danger Ensemble is involved with a presentation of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, you know it is not going to be “Macbeth” as you know it. And given its feature of a sexy Mrs M, “Weekend at Bernie’s” type moment and even a Farnham number in support of its focus on ambition and ‘be your best self’ tagline, their current production certainly proves this to be true.

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This is “Macbeth” at its most hyper-real, featuring many intriguing changes to the original text, including emphasis on the larger-than-life passion between the power-addicted, murderous main couple (Chris Beckey and Elle Mickel) through not just their passionate reunion kiss but their laden physical interactions during conversation.

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Gender-blind casting sees a blithe Princess Malcolm (Cienda McNamara) as heir to the throne of King Duncan, in mercurial juxtaposition to the usually solely dark and dangerous dramatisation of the rise and fall of Macbeth’s ambition for power and consequential slaying of all who are an obstacle in his path to kingship. Yet, seasoned Shakespearean performer Sally McKenzie is sincere and powerful in performance as Macbeth’s foil, the pivotal avenging Thane of Fife, Macduff.

Similarly, in her first major production role, Mickel is strong in her approach to characterisation of the aspirationally-manipulative Lady Macbeth, bringing a fresh complexity to a role usually considered to be of an older woman by presenting her less of a crazed harpy and more of a woman grieving the recent loss on a baby. With Beckey as a solid and compelling titular protagonist, the couple’s central relationship becomes a gripping one that really works well on stage.

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This, however, is a show that is all about its aesthetic, precise in its every detail, down to the glowing green of a cigarette ember. Even the violent visuals are gorgeous and although there is no hand-to-hand combat in Act Five’s culminating confrontation between Macduff and Macbeth, there are interesting ways of representing the battle in its place.

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The QACI theatre’s expansive stage allows for some immense scenes and Act Three’s royal banquet presents a particularly memorable visual image of the Da Vinci ‘Last Supper’ sort. Striking too are early scenes that feature Jack Hutchinson as King Duncan, side of stage, dressed all in white, with Elizabethan ruff, strategising over a table of war figurines while drinking milk as white as the blood which many characters will later be shedding.

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Lasers also add to the Ben Hughes’ lush green lighting and silhouetted images, making the weird sisters’ prophecies unlike any version before seen. The soundscape emphasises the elemental forces that grip Macbeth, resounding the repetition of the hags’ chants, and amplifying the addition of the rarely-seen Witch Queen, Hecate.

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Co-designer Arnavaz Lindsay’s costumes are sumptuous in their rich detail and contrast from imposing ‘winter is coming’ coat to plastic wrapped performers. And music enlivens the narrative with a pumping, at-times familiar soundtrack.

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If the quality of a Shakespeare performance depends on the originality of the production and its new revelations regarding themes and characters, then The Danger Ensemble’s take on “Macbeth” is a work of excellence. Director and Designer Steven Mitchell Wright has created a smouldering celebration of the company’s tenth anniversary with a beautiful, powerful and very wicked production that proves the ongoing resonance of the Bard’s themes in relation to ambition and the corruptible nature of absolute power.

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Photos c/o – Morgan Roberts

Abridged ambitions

Macbeth (shake & stir theatre company)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

January 13 – 14

Shakespeare’s most famous political tragedy, aka The Scottish Play dramatises the rise and fall of Macbeth’s ambition for power, with urging from his wife and the consequential slaying of all who are an obstacle in his path to kingship. It is one of the darkest and most complex of the Bard’s journeys with some of his most infamous characters.

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To select it for the 2017 Queensland Shakespeare Production is certainly ambitious, given that the cast (of 2016 Queensland Youth Shakespeare Festival competitors) and creatives had only six days to rehearse, block, choreograph, design and tech the work. But from the moment the show begins with Kuda Mapeza’s melodic caution that ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, it is clear that the imaginative multi-arts exploration of the text is going to be an engaging one.

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This is an abridged version of the epic tragedy, cut down to just 75 minutes, yet still featuring all the key scenes and lines. Yet scene changes are almost imperceptible in their flow of actors, who enter from all parts of the performance space (even underneath its raised catwalks), never breaking the rhythm of the play.

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The physical theatre of its ensemble work is impressive, sitting well with its snippets of song and dance. Still, the production remains true to the violence of the savage drama and its fight scenes (choreographed by Johnny Balbuziente) are all impressive in creation of the illusion of physical combat. And there is even appearance of Shakespeare’s trademark witty innuendo in the porter scene, with Mitchell De Zwart not overplaying the bawdiness of the drunken gate-keeper’s exaggerated complaints and bawdy observations.

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Under the direction of Nelle Lee (along with Alexander Butt and Amy Ingram), Shakespeare’s language sits well in the mouths of cast members, evident particularly in the witches’ combined foreshadowing chants. Mathew Bengston gives a solid performance in the monumental role of the Scottish warrior poised at the point of possibility, however, as the plot progresses his monologues appear as a distracting hybrid of accents.

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As the ruthless Lady Macbeth, Evelina Singh is excellent. Indeed, her ‘milk of human kindness’ speech is a show highlight as she at-once conveys anger, confusion and despair along with her articulated ambivalence of gendered activity. Although the couple’s central relationship is not particularly gripping, however, this is perhaps a fault of the abridgement.

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The production’s aesthetics are impressive. A moody soundscape (from designer JP Vizcay Wilson) supports the shaping of Macbeth’s ambition in terms of the supernatural and the superstitious. And costumes offer interesting symbolism with players appearing in dark colours of contrast to the ensemble of witches, all dressed in white. While not the demotic secret black and midnight hags of Shakespeare’s imagining, the dishevelled coven convey an elemental force that is visually arresting in its grip of Macbeth as they intertwine about the stage.

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In the creative hands of a company with reputation for excellence in re-imagining the cannon, like the previous Queensland Shakespeare Festival productions, “Macbeth” succeeds in bringing the Bard alive for contemporary audiences. It not only highlights the universality and ongoing relevance of Shakespeare’s themes but shows how, even in his darkest plays, there is still room for productions to make their own mark.

Photos c/o – Joel Devereux

Bell’s brutal best

Othello (Bell Shakespeare)

The Arts Centre Gold Coast

October 11

There are few companies in Australia that bring us the Bard as well as Bell Shakespeare, proven in not only fidelity to text but their highlight of the works’ ongoing thematic relevance. And, accordingly, the company’s “Othello” is a compelling production sure to affect audience members to their core in reflection of its examination of the complex contradictory nature of humanity.

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The brutal story is of Othello (Ray Chon Nee), stranger to the world of Renaissance Venice who, despite his Moorish origins, stoically commands career success and marriage to a woman half his age before being betrayed by his ensign Iago (Yalin Ozucelik) to be used as pawn in manipulation to murder his own wife Desdemona (Elizabeth Nabben) in response to a fictitious affair between her and squadron leader Cassio (Michael Wahr). In the company’s hands, the pace of the epic tragedy blisters along during Act One as Iago adds justification to (deluded) self-justification of why he is intent on enacting his plot to destroy Othello, at first claiming jealousy over recently-promoted rival Cassio’s lack of battle experience and then soliloquising as to his suspicion regarding his wife Emilia’s supposed infidelity with Othello (and Cassio).

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Lighting works well to enrich the play’s mood, starting in the shadows outside Senator Brabantio’s house as the cynical, destructive Iago uses nobleman Rodergio (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) to cause an outcry by shouting that Desdemona has deceived her father in eloping with Othello and continuing in murky green shades as the petty-minded villain progressively outlines his plan to be evened with The Moor, ‘wife for wife’. Costumes also work to convey character and theme; in contrast to the structured military dress of others, Desdemona’s clothing is softer as it floats innocently around her.

Staging is simple yet impressive in its versatility with a single rectangular table on wheels being used to provide the elevated platform of the balcony from which Brabantio calls to the duo underneath and later table upon which maps are examined in plan for General Othello’s lead of the Venetian army to war when news arrives that the Turks are soon to invade Cyprus. Yet, strangely, the handkerchief that provides Othello with the required ‘ocular proof’ that convinces him to kill Desdemona is far from the spotted with strawberries napkin expressly described in the dialogue.

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There are no weak links in the stellar cast. Elizabeth Nabeen and Joanna Downing create contrasting but complete female characters, Nabeen as the demure but more-modern and worldly than usual, Desdemona, in contrast to Iago’s wilful wife Emilia, ultimately loyal to her mistress upon disbelieving realisation that her husband has orchestrated events leading to Othello’s murder of Desdemona. Lugton is a convincing Roderigo, bringing an appealing humour to the essentially meek and easily-manipulated character and Wahr is impressively emotive as Cassio, especially in lament of the loss of his reputation upon forfeiture of his lieutenancy for succumbing to the devilish ‘invisible spirit of wine’ on duty.

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Ozucelik is an engaging Iago, everyman in his manipulations in belie of his cunning duplicity. And his ultimate lack of remorse is chilling. The play belongs, however, to its titular Moor of Venice and Chong Nee is gripping in his portrayal. In unapologetic and sincere account of how his relationship with Desdemona is respectful and mutual, his performance is quite exquisite as he massages the words of his monologue for the emotional extremities of their enunciation. And when he transfers his internal emotion upon comprehension of what he has done into plea to ‘speak of me as… one who loved not wisely but too well,’ it is one of the play’s most poignant moments, such is the dignity and vulnerability of his portrayal.

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Act Two is filled with drama thanks to the speed and aggression of Othello’s corruption to obsessive ‘green-eyed-monster’ and the resulting expose of the power play of possessiveness within the two marriages. Indeed, under the direction of Bell Shakespeare’s Artistic Director Peter Evans, the play’s violent exploration of the thin line that separates love and jealousy, provides confronting comment on the irrationality of domestic violence. And, complicit to his lies, the audible audience reactions to Iago’s chameleon behaviour when with Othello, frequent mention of the word honest as descriptor of his character and hatefully racist descriptors of the Moor, prove the resonance of the work. … as should be the case when it comes to one of Shakespeare’s best tragedies.

 Photos c/o – https://www.facebook.com/BellShakespeareCo

Merchant mirth

The Merchant of Venice

Gardens Theatre

October 5 – 8

“The Merchant of Venice” is filled with some of Shakespeare’s most common motifs; it is set in Italy, a letter is sent to Padua and twice in the play daring escapes are executed through cross-dressing. Yet, it remains one of the canon’s most challenging, and, therefore, rarely performed works for modern audiences, thanks to its anti-semitic themes. However, under the direction of Michael Futcher and Helen Howard, QUT’s second year Acting students present the work in a way that speaks clearly of our prejudiced modern world, while remaining authentic, respectful and rigorous.

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The play begins by following the young and impulsive Bassanio as he sets out on a quest to woo Portia of Belmont. To do so, he must borrow from his titular wealthy merchant friend, Antonio. Because Antonio is currently cash-poor, having invested his money in overseas mercantile ventures, they need to seek the help of a disenfranchised moneylender, Shylock. While Shylock is initially hesitant due to Antonio’s; previous anti-semitism, he eventually agrees to the loan on condition that he can carve out a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he cannot punctually return the funds.

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Following the loan agreement, Bassanio is able to win Portia’s hand and heart when faced with a guesswork game of choice of three caskets, made of gold, silver and lead, forced upon her by her deceased father. When Antonio’s ships miscarry and his estate grows low, his bond to the Jew is forfeited so Portia, unbeknownst to Bassanio, disguises herself as a man and travels to Venice, pretending to be a doctor of the law to free Antonio from his execution at Shylock’s hand. Not only is Antonio’s life spared but the court proceeds to punish Shylock by forcing his conversion to Christianity.

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In spite of his contemptuous final reflections, many audience members see the ending as one of horrible injustice for the Jewish moneylender and this production brings a degree of sympathy to the antagonist’s loss of everything he values. Although not the ‘old Shylock’ referenced in the text, Ryan Hodson is excellent in the role. Of hunched physicality but robustness of voice, his layered performance ranges from rage in reaction to his daughter Jessica’s elopement with the Christian, Lorenzo to delight at the prospect of revenge upon Antonio, adeptly incorporating humour, villainy, and empathy as he makes his story both one of an angry old man, pushed to barbarity by the barbarism around him as much as a comment on race.

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As Antonio, the arbitrary victim of Shylock’s rage, Tom Wilson is an early standout, setting the tone of the text, despite only appearing occasionally on stage. His Antonio is one of honour but also much melancholy amidst his generosity, which is revealed especially in scenes with his dear friend, the equally confident and arrogant Bassanio (Karl Stuifzand), with only suggestion of a homosexual dimension to the relationship between the two.

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Ebony Nave brings an emotional range to the prominent and intelligent Portia, especially evident though her reactions in the third casket scene where she initially feigns disinterest to appear nonchalant but then hopes for the success of Bassanio, a Venetian, scholar and solider visitor in her father’s time. Self-assertive after his correct choice of the lead casket, her performance is playfully energetic, particularly in the final scene resolution of the ring plot.

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The cast excels at performing the Bard’s dense language with conversational tone and easily find the play’s moments of mirth. Tom Cossettini and Alex Neal are delightfully dexterous as comic-relief clowns Lancelot and his father Gobbo.

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Portia’s satiric recalled cataloguing of her wooers according to national stereotypes is full of light-hearted fun and Alex Neal also delivers a hilarious pantomimish performance as Portia’s second potential suitor, the egotistical Prince of Aragon who, when faced with the silver casket’s inscription ‘who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves’ assumes desert and the instant unlock of his fortunes.

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QUT’s second-year Bachelor of Fine Arts (Acting) students have created a sharp and clear “The Merchant of Venice” that balances humour with its examination of the baser aspects of humanity. Ultimately, however, its theme of racism prevails and by throwing light on this, the work serves to showcase the universality of its themes of justice and mercy, showing how it is not Shakespeare plays that are timeless.

Photos c/o – Fiona Sonja de Sterke

Midsummer mayhem

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(Lyric Hammersmith and Filter Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

September 9 – 17

It is a rare thing to be an hour into a show and still have no idea at all where it is going to go. And in the case of Filter Theatre’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, this is a very good thing, given the absurdity with which the group has taken what is arguably Shakespeare’s most popular and transformed it into a giddy and gleeful postmodern romp.

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That said, it does start a little slowly with, like so many Shakespearean works, a prologue, delivered with true Irish charm, but of frantic pace by Peter Quince (Ed Gaughan). Drifting into tangents about the Royal family, for example, he tells audience members that they are about to enter the Ancient Athens of ‘fantastic architecture and thriving homosexual culture’. He promises that the part of Bottom is meant to be played by a famous actor, but a technical hitch means that an ‘audience volunteer’ may have assume the role. It is all in keeping with the clumsy craft of the play’s Mechanicals’ amateur dramatics, and, as the curtain rises on the Athenian court, Shakespeare’s society is represented in the play by three distinct class groups, lovers, mechanicals and fairies. A series of mix-ups orchestrated by king of the fairies Oberon (Harry Jardine) causes lovers’ quarrels between Lysander and Hermia, Demetrius and Helena, frantic chases and general chaos that needs to be resolved before King Theseus’s fast approaching wedding.

What the audience sees, however, is no ethereal forest setting with set design placing the action within a run-down public bathroom of white tiles, water leaks and paper-walls through which characters literally burst on to the stage. Staging is chaotically creative as pieces are destroyed and as Puck (Ferdy Roberts) flings blue liquid gel love juice around, to instant aphrodisiac effect. Oberon, dressed as superhero in all-in-one suit and cape, flies, falls and is covered in flour as part of an epic food fight (with audience involvement). Rather than unruliness, this makes for a hilarious experience that flies by without realisation of its near two hour duration. It’s not all froth and frivolous bubble, however, for as contrast to the mania of the Mechanicals, the lovers, speak only Shakespeare’s words.

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This is a high-energy and physically-demanding show and all the performers deliver accordingly. Francesca Zoutewelle is solid as Hermia, Cat Simmons is an initially dignified Titania and John Lightbody is sensationally smooth as the lustful Lysander, once transformed entirely from his former unassuming self in reaction to the love potion. And Demetrious (Karl Queensborough) makes music out of the Bard’s iambic pentameter. Another standout is Ferdy Roberts as grumpy, tattooed and mischievous rocker roadie/stagehand Puck, from his commanding entrance to the dignified delivery of his final wishes of good night unto all. And Fergus O’Donnell makes the scripted chaos of Bottom’s ascension to stage seem spontaneously improvised. Together, they provide a refreshing interpretation of the characters

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Despite its anarchy, in many ways, this “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” keeps with Shakespeare’s original text though its weave of comedy through all three of the plot strands and, in particular through the ridiculous mirth of the working class Mechanicals and their presentation to the audience of an abbreviated “Pyramus and Thisbe”, making us laugh at them rather than with them, in a way different to many other of Shakespeare’s jesters and clowns.

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Every comic device is evident in this fast-moving funny-fest. There are moments of stand-up (showing that apparently 20 years is in fact too soon for a Michael Hutchence suicide joke), celebrity impersonations, spontaneous songs, slapstick, clowning and innuendo. The greatest laughs come, however, from notice of the little details, like the lameness of a lion costume and Oberon and Puck’s pull up of picnic chairs and crack open of drinks to watch the lovers battle it out.

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Filter Theatre have made their reputation mainly for inventive takes on classic plays and this is especially evident in their sound innovation, and Chris Branch and Tom Haines’s sound design and original music is masterful . Music is effectively integrated into this production and the live band, doubling as Mechanicals, in break from their play of retro kitsch Barry White and The Ramones numbers, add the necessary magic to assist the audience in imagining the invisible fairies to life and suggesting Bottom’s transition to donkey by the sounds of coconut-shell hooves clapping. And a fight between Lysander and Demetrius is enacted as a video game, with Puck at the console, with the noise of gunfire and explosions.

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Although a modernisation of a Shakespearean classic is hardly a ground-breaking idea, Filter Theatre manages to bring something truly unique to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Characters and scenes are presented with new purpose, freshly realising, in particular, the text’s sexual innuendo. It’s not always cohesive, but it is superlatively funny in its gleeful irreverence. Cutting and adding so much text is filled with risk, but it is risk that exists at the foundation of all exciting art. And, in this instance, the liberties taken with the text make for not only a highly-entertaining, but a genuinely accessible version. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much in the theatre.