By Jennifer Mustoe and Craig Mustoe
We have been to many Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s excellent productions, including the gore-filled Halloween shows, so we knew to expect a great show, filled with lots of energy, movement, interesting characters, and understandable dialogue and plots. (Shakespeare can be confusing.) But we were able to take a friend who’d never seen a GSC production, so it was fun to their current Halloween offering, The Revenger’s Tragedy, through her eyes. This friend doesn’t see many plays, so I was a little worried she’d be bored, confused, or cold. The show is outside at Provo’s Castle Amphitheater, so the fall show can be chilly. None of these issues arose. Our friend loved the show, was thoroughly entertained, followed the plot well and the weather was mild.
The beginning of the show featured a local band, The Echo Era, that actually performed from the stage. They were great–sort of a grungy, bluesy, jazzy rock sound that created an edge before the show. I did find it rather unfortunate that some people got up and left after the band played and didn’t stay for the show. Both acts have equal entertainment value.
GSC has jazzed up its stage a bit, though it’s always been a charming rendition of what we imagine they had in Shakespeare’s day–a stage that can be set up and pulled down (struck) by the players themselves. (And in fact, I know the players did just this and constructed and then tore down the stage so GSC could perform a different piece at UVU recently.) The multi-leveled space was great and gave many options for entrances and exits and action on more than one level. The “set” is completely bare–no set pieces: chairs, couches, tables and so forth. We audience members fill in the blanks. And this is what the GSC players explain. They have no director–it’s a collaborative effort; They create their own costumes; They come memorized to rehearsal and have only 40 hours of rehearsal at all. This is meant to duplicate the experience as it was in Shakespeare’s time. And because back then, all roles were played by men, there were some characters that were played by women for male roles and vice versa. (Yes, GSC has modernized that bit of casting!)
The Revenger’s Tragedy is not, in fact, a Shakespeare play, but written by one of his contemporaries: Thomas Middleton. It takes place in Italy and is, as you can imagine, about revenge. There are multiple bad guys in this show and truth to tell, there are few characters that are completely without guile. Perfect for a Halloween show.
The plot is rather simple. There’s this Duke (played with cunning and darkness by Joel Applegate) who sleeps with everyone, consensually and otherwise, and kills a woman who won’t sleep with him. Her husband, Vindici, played wonderfully by Mark Oram, exacts revenge. Oram has a difficult role–he needs to be sympathetic enough that when he starts doing really horrible things, we root for him still. Oram visited with audience members before the show, introducing us to his “wife”–a skull. So yes, we did see his side of things. Mostly. Vindici colludes with brother Hippolito (played winningly by Sam Portlock) to get back at the Duke and his super creepy son Lusurioso, played by remarkable actor Daniel Fenton Anderson, who brings to every role he plays such an amazing quality of truth, I’m glad I know Anderson to be a really nice guy. During this show, my stomach turned at his oily lechery. Of course, I mean this in the best way possible. Davey Morrison Dillard and Tyler Harris play the Duke’s second and third sons Ambitioso (an ambitious and ruthless chap) and Supervacuo (a total goofball) and provide some comic relief in this rather dark, gruesome play. I’ve seen Dillard and Harris work together many times and their synergy and timing really is perfection. I wished they had more stage time. Topher Rasmusson plays Spurio, the Duke’s bastard son and as with so many bastard sons in famous plays, is a resentful jerk and starts an affair with his stepmother, the Duchess played by Clarrisa Knotts. This couple is so revolting, each using the other for their own gain and a kick to their egos, and these actors play this out very believably. I felt the pain behind this couple’s affair and though it made me sad, I also felt a righteous disgust regarding these two, so Rasumsson and Knotts did their job well.
The plot is simple, but what happens onstage, you really need to go see so I’m not going to give details. Blood is spilled (and then some), entrails are pulled from a body (and it isn’t gross as much as funny), and evil is displayed thickly and throughout the show. The groundlings who stand in front of the stage rather than sitting (just as they had in Shakespeare’s time) got sprayed with blood, as is common at GSC Halloween shows. (So note: if you are buying a groundling ticket, dress appropriately, though the “blood” does wash out, we’re told.)
Throughout the show, a band plays background music, also a nod to Shakespeare’s era and it is really great to have that accentuating the highs and lows in the show. This is one of the best aspects of a great theater company–their ability to include music throughout the production.
The only “problems” I saw with this show is that it was not well-attended. I attribute this to it being BYU’s Homecoming weekend and the typical GSC-goers may have been otherwise occupied. But I am sincerely hoping that in the next shows, The Revenger’s Tragedy has huge crowds. It is well worth seeing. However, I wouldn’t bring kids–though the gore isn’t too gross, there is a lot of sexual discussion, owing to the fact that half the males in the cast are rapists and lechers. This does tend to put sexual violence at the forefront of a plot. Also, the Castle Amphitheater is a GORGEOUS space, but it is made of stone. Bring something soft to sit on and a blanket to keep warm. Check the weather–if it’s cold, dress for it. The show is almost two hours long, but it doesn’t seem like it. It is fun and creepy from the first to the last.
The Revenger’s Tragedy, Castle Amphitheatre (above the State Hospital), 1300 East Center Street, Provo, UT (drive up the hill and park by the lawn)
Tickets: $8.00 for Groundlings, $13.00 for seats if purchased online, $15.00 at the door. Mon, Fri, Sat until 10.31.16 7:30 PM.
Extra Halloween late show on 10.29.16 11:30 PM (this is a super fun show!)
Grassroots Shakespeare Company