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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Rotten and deLEARious, both broad musical comedies by American creative teams, could be second cousins. In one, audiences witness the burlesqued birth of both Hamlet and musical comedy; in the second, King Lear and The King James Bible spring to life. The two works share an impish sensibility that presume (but don't require) a certain fore-knowledge from its audience for full enjoyment. Shakespeare the man figures prominently in both works as Rotten's Renaissance rock star and as the nebbishy hired gun to the newly enthroned King James I in deLEARious.
deLEARious was a hit at the 2008 Hollywood Fringe Festival. For its revival, West (who also directs and is part of the company) has made some revisions, allowing the cast to balloon to 17. The expanded size meant that for a recent Saturday night performance, the number of players on stage nearly matched the total of the audience at the Atwater Village Theatre. With any luck, this imbalance will be corrected when the play reopens for an extension that runs through January. West's material is smart, the company is winning, and it's always a grand occasion to "brush up our Shakespeare" via verse, affectionate spoofery, or both. The more you know King Lear, the higher the fun quotient. Booze will also probably help.
The conceit of deLEARious is that the James I (played by Chase Studinski) fashions himself a writer and starts co-authoring Lear with the emasculated Shakespeare (Scott Mosenson), even bringing in Francis Bacon (Jason Paige) when he and Shakespeare start experiencing creative differences. At the same time, the King dispatches Shakespeare to help a team of theologians pull together his new translation of the Bible. Poor Will, his professional livelihood at stake and his wife giving him perpetual grief at home, can't refuse.
As the collaboration continues, we witness King Lear come to life. It may be truncated, delivered largely in contemporary English, and contain songs where monologues should be, but plot-wise, yeah, that's the Lear we know, and it's wicked clever. Of course, some of James's textual touch-ups are on point while others seem bizarro, and present day anachronisms are fair game. (Also an adaptor, West might consider breaking out the King Lear section of deLEARious and using it as an educational primer.) Although he chafes at the Bible assignment, Shakespeare ends up being the team member that all the other dysfunctional and backbiting theologians look to for editorial guidance whenever they get stuck.
Interspersed with the court of King James and Lear's England are scenes set in present day Los Angeles where director Ron (played by West, alternating with Brendan Hunt) and his musical director and pianist Phyllis (Jan Roper) debrief over the actors auditioning for the musical Lear project. Most of these hopefuls are women that Ron has dated, met in AA, or encountered in strip clubs. So Gina Manziello rips into a bump and grind version of the entirely non-Bard-related audition number "Times Like This" to land the role of Lear's usually demure daughter Cordelia. Even as a framing device, the present day section feels self-indulgent, but it allows actors like Manziello and Rachel Addington (who also plays Regan) to strut their stuff.
The performers, many of them triple cast, have excellent chops for this kind of smart burlesque and seem to be having a high old time of things. Studinski is a smiling cauldron of narcissism as the King and besotted as Goneril's lust-struck servant Oswald. Mosenson is both plenty humorous and a pitiable doormat as Shakespeare and the Duke of Gloucester. West may not be the company's strongest singer, but he's got plenty of showbiz brio enacting the raging, weeping and, yes, soft-shoe-ing King Lear.
Anybody who has ever pondered, in a scholarly or idle moment, how much of Shakespeare's plays sprang from Shakespeare's quill should get a boot out of deLEARious, and certainly there is a history of strapping a happy ending onto one of literature's greatest tragedies. For those Southlanders who simply cannot spend enough time hanging out with Shakespeare the person, the Bard is back in 2018 in the Philip Whitchurch two hander Shakespeare, his wife and the Dog at the Broad Stage and in the stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love at South Coast Repertory.
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Book, music and lyrics by Phil Swann and Ron West
Directed by Ron West
Cast: Rachel Addington, Lane Allison, George Pete Caleodis, Kiley Eberhardt, Chris Farah, Ramon Garcia, Brendan Hunt, Conor Lane, Gina Manziello, Scott Mosenson, Jason Paige, Jan Roper, Robyn Roth, Chase Studinski, Rama Vallury, Micah Watterson, Amanda Weier, Ron West
Scenic Design: James Spencer
Sound Design: Robert Arturo Ramirez
Lighting Design: Ellen Monocroussos
Properties: Bruce Dickinson and Ina Shumaker
Stage Manager: Jennifer Palumbo
Plays through January 27, 2018 at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 882-6912, www.openfist.org
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson
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