Get serious about “Shakespeare’s King Phycus”

When attempting to recommend Shakespeare’s King Phycus, the joint venture of The Chamberlain’s Men and the Strange Tree Group, the best way I found to describe the production is as a Shakespeare parody mash-up. Out of the wilds of Idaho, Tom Wilmorth’s metaplay not only makes great fun of popular assumptions about the Shakespeare canon but also our expectations of classical drama. This production is more of an experience than your normal “serious” dramatic performance, operating on a trifecta of staging, script, and performance that gesture to audiences’ self-awareness. This is unlike the typical modern theatre experience in which we sit in a dark hall where our silence is the canvas on which the actors perform and our applause is choreographed into the production itself and expected–our only control is to adjust the volume of our gratitude.

Upon entering the Building Stage performance space, you find yourself immersed in a semi-fabricated world. Lining the walls of the make-shift foyer are convincing faux-historical artifacts of original play scripts and photos of early performances by one Edwin Booth (brother to the notorious John Wilkes Booth). Included are contrasting critical claims as to the authenticity of Phycus as a very early Shakespeare play (whose timing could not be more perfect due to the recent publication and controversy over Double Falsehood). Just beyond the exhibit is tavern-like bar, built from the ground up by The Chamberlain’s Men. The detailed construction, which appears stolen from a Renaissance faire, features Goose Island Green Line Pale Ale donated by Blue Frog Bar and Grill. As an audience member, one is immediately thrust into an explicitly theatrical environment you will be a part of of throughout the performance.

King Phycus asks, “Do you see?” (StrangeTree.org)

Whether or not set designer Jay Neander was aware of early modern theatre practices, the production mirrors original techniques to fun effect. The audience sits on a built stage, with a little dais–crafted of recycled VHS tapes convincingly reconstructed to resemble brick and cobblestone–as the only division between performers and spectators. In fact, the entire set is repurposed with professional prop industry detail: lights made from beer bottles, Juliet’s balcony railing embellished with found objects such high heels, and parts of Starbucks to-go cups adorn the elevated boxes where busts of Queen Elizabeth and Abraham Lincoln spectate. The production company even used “green” advertising strategies, putting up mud stencil ads all over Chicago’s bypasses, bridges and sidewalks to get the word out.

The use of modern garbage to create a sixteenth-century set is only one way in which this production draws our attention to how our conceptions of theatre have changed over that time, sometimes to unreasonable degrees. Wilmorth’s script is as consistent as it is funny, and yet you don’t have to be a Shakespeare scholar to get the jokes. His prologue employs the audience member to use their “thinking caps to crown our kings,” nodding to the necessity of imagination and willful suspension of belief in any performance. Famous Shakespearean moments, such as the Ceasar’s death and the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, are torn to shreds for their grandiose inaccessibility. The childhood rhyme “sticks and stones may brake my bones” is put into iambic pentameter, and irony is taken to the next level when Alanis Morissette is invoked in a reference to Ceasarian architecture:

Isn’t it ionic … don’t you think?

The most clever scene is one in which a servant works to recreate darkness on a lit stage. No matter what question Hamlet (or Romeo, I cannot remember which it was, as the same actor plays both) asks his man, the only responses he receives are “I do not know, as it is very dark out.” This moment is brilliantly clever, mocking the expectations of us to imagine darkest night in such plays as MacBeth, where all but one scene takes place at night. The Globe performances typically took place in the early afternoon to cash in on the sunlight rather than playing for candles, while the more expensive Blackfriars playhouse used candle light but for an extra fee.

Discontented siblings Hamlet and Juliet (StrangeTree.org)

Such moments highlight necessary the expectations of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century audiences, but do not necessarily translate to the modern stage and it’s audiences. For example, only six actors play dozens of parts–some doing so by simply combing their hair in a different direction to signify change, to great comic effect. Aside from the staging and the script, the casting is particularly spot on, using workhorses from The Strange Tree ensemble, described by TimeOut Chicago as striking “just the right balance, merrily lobbing joke grenades with its trademark faux-earnestness.” One great example is when Goldenberg and Rosensteen arrive on stage as commedia dell’arte sketch comedians polling the audience for a topic on which to perform, earnestly mocking the Chicago theatre community that supports IO and Second City, among others. The ensembles sense of delivery really shapes the tone of the play and makes it worth the ticket price ($25).

Shakespeare parody and humor has been done before and almost ad nauseam at this point. Yet belaboring the issue of recycled costumes and all-to-quick wardrobe changes is funny in such a context. For example, Romeo, Brutus and Extranius all conspire over Caesar’s death by recreating a dance sequence from The Music Man, and hunch-backed Gloucester makes sure to include an expectant pause after every bad joke. The powers of staging, script and delivery combined, Shakespeare’s King Phycus is a clever and self-effacing production.

This production pokes fun at the status and stock invested in Shakespearean classical drama, and the impossible expectation that we might get all the nuances of four-hundred-year-old humor. And yet ticket sales for Shakespeare productions rarely wane. Aside from the post-modern humor, what is so interesting about Phycus is that the production is evidence that our culture is starting to rethink early modern dramatic composition as not what we assume. (At least we might be shifting that way if Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous, which considers the Shakespeare authorship controversy, doesn’t completely unravel these right notions.) In our post-modern, Simpsonesque sense of humor, Phycus is a great way to laugh with others at ourselves and the impossible expectations we have of “serious” entertainment.


2 AUG 2010 UPDATE: According to director Ira Amyx, there is considerable interest in sending this production to New York City in the summer of 2011. If you are interested in getting involved or contributing, please contact Ira. When attempting to recommend Shakespeare’s King Phycus, the joint venture of The Chamberlain’s Men and the Strange Tree Group, the best way I found to describe the production is as a Shakespeare parody mash-up. Out of the wilds of Idaho, Tom Wilmorth’s metaplay not only makes great fun of popular assumptions about the Shakespeare canon but also our expectations of classical drama. This production is more of an experience than your typical serious dramatic performance, operating on a trifecta of audience self-awareness. This is unlike the typical modern theatre experience in which we sit in a dark hall where our silence is the canvas on which the actors perform and our applause is choreographed into the production itself and expected–our only control is to adjust the volume of our gratitude.


An email from the playwright (foolsquad.com): “Dear Elizabeth, I enjoyed reading your dissection of Shakespeare’s King Phycus. It’s always refreshing to hear a scholarly voice analyzing Pull-My-Finger jokes. Well done. I’m glad you got to see the production. All best, Tom Willmorth” Thanks so much! I am glad you liked it!

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