The Complete Deaths of William Shakespeare – Slayed It
How do I kill thee? Let me count the ways. Sword, dagger, axe, sledgehammer, rod, pillow, poison, light saber. All of these and more are enthusiastically employed in “The Complete Deaths of William Shakespeare,” the current collaboration between Cohesion Theatre Company and Baltimore Shakespeare Factory. The show is a joyous celebration of fight choreography, comic gags, and Bard geekery. It’s a raucous party for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
The production includes all the deaths that happen on stage in Shakespeare’s 38 plays, with a couple off-stage deaths thrown in for the sheer delight of beheading and bear-mauling. Narrating the play, hosting the show, and sometimes interjecting scenes to direct the actors is zombie Shakespeare (played with a charming balance of humblebrag and childlike glee by the always-stellar Jonas David Grey). His lines were penned and the patchwork of death scenes were stitched together by Cohesion Co-Founder and apparent theater superhero Alice Stanley, who just days ago performed as Feste in Cohesion’s “Twelfth Night” workshop and is writing an original play for their company. Oh, and they also directs “Complete Deaths” with BSF Artistic Director Tom Delise.
Delise and Stanley’s variety of staging creates an excellent flow of scenes on the two set levels and the floor, multiple entrances and zombie Shakes popping around the stage and throughout the audience. They make sure the show isn’t just a parade of deaths by changing up comic and straight interpretations in engaging small group scenes and a fantastic stretch of full ensemble Fight Club-style deaths with actors bouncing around like UFC fighters before a grapple and egging on the deaths as onlookers. First rule of Shakespeare Fight Club: Do not give less than 100 percent in any death scene. All of the eight-person ensemble of combatants jubilantly give 110 percent.
The dizzying amount of fight choreography along with a lights-up house and hype man zombie Shakespeare make “Complete Deaths” feel more like a sporting event than a play. Fight Choreographers Brad Norris (Cohesion Co-Founder) and Tegan Williams (BSF regular) don’t pull any punches, sword duels, knife fights, cheek slaps, necks snaps or sledgehammer slams. The fighting has the same brutal/comic mix as a Tarantino film. Norris and Williams are also performers in the production. The two partner fantastically in a tongue-in-cheek tango fight scene that is very “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” – will they get it on or kill each other? I bet you can guess. Another cheeky fight scene introduces light sabers and a vocal percussion version of “The Imperial March” from “Star Wars.” Norris is usually behind the scenes as director, and it is delightful to watch him perform. He is particularly memorable as a gleefully violent Titus Andronicus and when he interrupts the “Romeo and Juliet” death scene to do the Pyramus and Thisbe schtick from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
The other six combatants/performers rounding out this excellent ensemble are Zach Bopst, Jessica Byars, Chris Cotterman, Dominic Gladden, Melanie Glickman and Katherine Vary. Every single actor has standout comic and dramatic moments. Gladden’s comic timing is spot on. His death as Polonius produced a particularly delighted wave of laughter from the audience during the performance I saw. Glickman has a face for reaction and can instigate chuckles with just the twist of her dark eyebrows. Cotterman and Bopst are the young strapping men of the show, each effectively going all Gaston or Romeo as the scene calls for. Byars stands out as multiple doomed queens and wives, letting her expert comic subtly shine through as an over-attentive Gertrude and asp-wrapped Cleopatra. Vary is solid in her wide variety of roles, including Juliet and a whole lot of characters Shakespeare geeks are better equipped at recognizing than I.
Shakespeare knowledge note: That “how do I love thee” reference at the top of this review is Elizabeth Barrett Browning, not Shakespeare, which is something I did not know until google set me straight while fact-checking. On the scale of Shakespeare appreciator, I’ve seen about a dozen productions, read a double handful of plays and sonnets, work in professional theater, have visited Stratford-Upon-Avon and grew up with an English teacher mom who named our golden retriever “Hamlet” and once tried to make the reading of “Twelfth Night” on Christmas Eve a family tradition (didn’t catch on). So, for a casual, yet competent Shakespeare appreciator, the “Complete Deaths” moves at such a fast pace, it’s hard/impossible to keep up. In the upper echelon of Bard knowledge was my date, who when prompted by zombie Shakespeare during the show to finish one of his lines was the first to yell out “food for worms!” She has written her own popularly received adaptation of dozens of Shakespeare’s greatest hits, is a theater professional and has a degree in English. She, too, found the dozens of deaths and characters hard to follow. It would’ve been helpful – for Bardolators as well as those wanting to bulk up their Shakespeare knowledge – to have a list of the plays and 72 deaths presented. Then I wouldn’t feel like such as ass only referencing in this review the five Shakespeare plays I’m actually familiar with, which is mostly thanks to ’90s film adaptations and required high school reading (from my mom).
THE BOTTOM LINE: “The Complete Deaths of William Shakespeare” is a super fun celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Even though non-Shakespeare nerds may feel clueless at times, Cohesion and BSF have so much fun with this production it’s difficult to not enjoy yourself even if Romeo and Juliet are the only casualties you can name.
“The Complete Deaths of William Shakespeare” run is Jan. 15-17 at St. Mary’s Community Center at 3838 Roland Ave. in Hampden.
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Styx Disclaimer: As a newbie to the area, I am not an expert on Baltimore theater, but I have strong opinions about artistic endeavors – especially community theater productions. Generally, I’m a big fan of people, and I know some of the artists I review. I root for everyone and am thrilled when people create thoughtful, compelling productions. I also think if you’re going to do anything, you should do your best, so I’m honest when something doesn’t work. I think it’s awesome you spend your free time creating performance art, and I offer my thoughtful commentary in honor of that dedication.