To be or not to be is the question of the moment, and so it is with the wonder of improvisational theater. An idea is thrust upon the ensemble and then, hopefully, in a flash, the assembled creative minds on stage bring forth a work of drama, comedy, or tragedy to the delight, or disappointment, of the expectant audience. It takes great skill and imagination to make an impromptu idea flow with conviction and commitment.
And, so it is with the wonders of As You Will, a company of engaging, talented actors who invent Shakespearean “epics” from thin air, or more literally from the confines of the renowned, Off-Off Broadway theater UNDER St. Marks. The production is presented as part of the 2023 Little Shakespeare Festival.
The actors/directors ask the audience to provide a name for a Shakespearian play that has never been produced, or written, for that matter, and from which they will spend 50 minutes creating, directing, and acting in whatever the title from the audience suggests. My evening was the wonders of Julius MacHamlet, and, oh what a delicious dish served cold it was, if revenge be the name of the presentation.
Six actors comprise the As You Will company, Conor D Mullen, Mike Luca, Allison Furlong, Maureen Fenninger, Zev Hurwich, and David Crozier. The first four were featured in the show I saw. The company was founded in 2016 by Mullen, David Brummer and George Hilder and has been performing unscripted improv Shakespearean productions all over the Metro New York region since. They use the themes, language, and verse of the Bard with some “scholarly” footnotes added as needed.
For a group of actors to be able to do what this intrepid ensemble does with every performance takes an in-depth knowledge of the Shakespearean canon, a good facility with the iambic pentameter poetic form, and a clear awareness of the audience’s reaction. Working with plays of the Elizabethan period is difficult with a script in hand but to make it work extemporaneously takes special talent.
Mullen, Luca, Furlong, and Fenninger did a good job of presenting a sense of a play from that period but as good as they were in inventing the poetic verse, not an easy thing to do, there were moments when it did not work. There were also moments when a scene may not be clear to the overall theme. It was then that one of the cast members, not in the scene, would step in with a footnote, to reorient the audience on how the current scene fits into the overall structure of the play.
The footnotes, while appearing to be scholarly, add a free-style comedic touch to the action on stage. For example, in a scene depicting an argument between two of the characters, it was not clear which of the themes the action was connected to so one member of the cast stepped forward and announced, “Footnote 300.” He then proceeded to give a seemingly scholarly interpretation of what was happening.
The presentation of the footnote caused two things to happen. First, the actors in the scene froze in place, and second, the lighting tech spotlighted the actor presenting the footnote. Each of the three times a footnote was presented the timing of the change in lighting and the action of the actors in the scene was flawless, as if it had been a scripted moment.
If you like seeing skillfully executed improvisational acting with good comedic timing then you will enjoy the work of As You Will.
As You Will, An Unscripted Original Shakespeare Performance (through August 19, 2023)
2023 Little Shakespeare Festival
UNDER St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.frigid.nyc
Running time: 50 minutes without intermission