Baltimore is trying to expand its cultural swag. And as lovely as it is to go into the city and see a show, get some exquisite food and libations; the arts are struggling. Several theater companies are barely scraping by. In a city where there are several Shakespeare companies and their subsidiaries, there emerges yet another- fools and madmen collective.
This is the brain child of Caitlin Carbone and Josh Thomas who are trying the bridge the racial disparity often seen in the performing arts. This is a unique blend of Shakespeare and hip hop that re-tells the story of King Lear. Carbone is responsible for editing the segments of text from the source play, and Thomas for writing the original music and lyrics that intersperse the production.
If you didn’t pay attention in High School English- here’s the short of Lear: an aging old King asks his three daughters who loves him most. As his oldest two proclaim their fondness, he divides the kingdom into sections and awards it to them. When his favorite, the youngest, Cordelia speaks, she says that there is nothing to compare her love to. Enraged Lear kicks her out of the kingdom and a nobleman named Kent, who comes to her defense. Once Goneril and Regan become the rulers of the kingdom, they also morph into the evil step-sisters. They fight over Edmund, plot each other’s demise, and pretty much write off their old and mad father, leaving him to wander around with a fool and try to make sense of his fate. There’s a subplot with Edgar and Edmund and legitimacy- but the above is the super condensed Spark Notes. You’ll pass the quiz but maybe not the test.
At the heart of the performance is the rhythm. So the first paragraph is dedicated not only to the musician who wrote the lyrics and songs, but was also performing on the drums- Josh Thomas. He was accompanied by Matthew Ancarrow on keyboard and Justin Lawson Isett on guitar. The beat of Shakespeare is iambic pentameter, a two-hinged beat of unstress, stress and ends up sounding, well, like a heartbeat. This metronome works perfectly in blending the Shakespearean passages with the hip hop songs that pop in and out. Although the lyrics were a bit fast at points, and bit hard to hear at others, the beat was solid all the way through and offered the over-arching blend that the play relied on. I am an old lady, admittingly, but sometimes the actors rapped so fast, I missed entire lines! I will bring hearing aids next time along with my walkerJ
The cast! I can’t honestly rank performances- I felt like everyone was completely in tune as an ensemble and worked so seamlessly, even shouting words from backstage as needed. Louis B. Murray plays the coveted title character- a role actors have vied for for centuries. He is smooth with his raps, and even smoother as he recites Shakespeare and starts to unwind. His clothes become more disheveled as does his demeanor, accents, and preciseness. He is truly a full-blown mess by the end and that is a compliment- he is supposed to be. He is undone by his own folly and it is heart-wrenching to watch him agonize his own demise. Charence Higgins plays Goneril with force and fervor. She is a no-nonsense woman and is taking charge. Sherna Ann Phillips plays Regan and is also not in the mood for anyone’s nonsense. I suspect at the school performances these are the two women that the audience really rallies behind. It is like you love to hate them. They are making a mess of their father’s kingdom- but they are also a force to be reckoned with- especially when the stab out eyes with high-heels. Both women do an excellent job of staying regal and upright when circling each other like sharks, and then “breaking it down” as they dance and rap with other characters and plot their way to the top.
Cordelia is played by Dylan McKenzi. Her innocence and sweet demeanor separates her from her sisters, and allows her to be more open and accessible. McKenzi also fills several minor roles once Cordelia has been exiled. Cheryl J. Campo is a fresh take on Gloucester with a blue fixator and fuzzy shawl. Campo’s agony, amazement, and musical skills impressed me! She was hard to watch, but even harder to ignore. Aladrian Wetzel is the gender-bending Kent who reappears as a servant. Her attempts at manliness were hilarious- the deepened voice and manspread where spot on. As the play progresses, she appears one of the few characters capable of remorse and regret, and Wetzel beats her chest in anguish as she cannot change the course of events.
Gino Abellanosa does a nice disintegrated Edgar. He lets himself succumb to madness, but pulls it back together when lineage is on the line. Drew Anderson cleans up well in a suit with tails, and smirks like a champion. No wonder those ladies fawn over each other to claim him! Although he is a scoundrel, he is so charming and good-looking it is hard to despise him. And of course, we can’t forget, the fool- portrayed by Mike Smith. Some of his lines are comic gold- he raps and comments on everything from the title of the play, to a hand-raising rendition of “hey-ho.” His dance moves were also amazing- the man can groove!
I, as a costumer in some of my spare time, really appreciated the small nods to costume and props. All characters were draped in varieties of black attire, but with small pops of color to differentiate them. Goneril’s was the royal blue, Regan’s a bright orange, and Cordelia’s a muted yellow. Even Kent and Edmund and Edgar had small accessories of red, green, yellow. The only person fully wardrobed in black, was Lear. Fitting. The props have to be minimal for a travelling production because you can’t control the space you’re are performing in, and they all have to fit in your trunk and be easy to carry up and down hallways and stairs. In this case several chairs, painted silver and gold, were used to represent everything from thrones to caves to moors. I really liked that Lear’s chair was always gold, but Regan’s and Goneril’s were silver (spoiler alert).
If you want a new take on an old classic, or want to support the future of arts in Baltimore- give a look to fools and madmen collective via their Facebook page or Cohesion Theatre Company’s website. The goal, according to Carbone and Thomas, is to try to tackle a new play in this format each year. For now, their time is full with three evening performances, and mobile tour of Baltimore City Schools. I extend an offer to perform for my classes anytime…
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? You should go! But you are running out of time! Unless you can convince them you are a high school student in the city, there are only three evening performances- Tues 5/22 at the Motor House in Station North, Wed 5/23 at the Cohesion Theatre space in Canton, and Thurs 5/24 at Mt. Vernon Place church. All performances are at 8 p.m. For all those who feel as though Shakespeare is inaccessible or feel that the arts for the elite and snooty, this is for you. It is an easily attainable version punctuated with live music and full of hip-hop flavor. Come and savor. You won’t regret it. (Now get on that shit!)