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Artists' Ensemble's 'The Shakespeare Conspiracy' is a mystery worth your while

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Artists' Ensemble Theater's 2014 production of 'The Shakespeare Conspiracy'

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Local theatre company Artists’ Ensemble is currently performing a new play entitled The Shakespeare Conspiracy. Just going off the title, it’s a little hard to tell what exactly the show will be. First guess might be a mystery, but that isn’t precisely accurate. It’s probably closest to being a thriller, with just a dash of soap opera and a nice helping of speculative history. Whatever the formula, though, it’s worth checking out. This is no dry history lesson. On the contrary, this show brings along enough espionage, backstabbing, and danger to make James Bond jealous.

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This is a new play written by local playwrights Rufus Cadigan and Ted Bacino, and the two have done a fine job with the script. Plays about speculative history don’t come along too often, so that in itself gives us something different and interesting. The writing style works well, effectively using a unique take on “overlapping” scenes (for lack of a better term) throughout the play that is quite clever and of particular note- hard to describe perhaps, but it will impress you if you see it. There are also quite a few legitimately funny lines and moments mixed in with the intrigue, and a peppering of winkingly familiar Shakespeare quotes that are used to good effect. The strength of the script is also augmented by Richard Raether’s direction. He makes effective use of the thrust stage, stages the aforementioned dual scenes expertly, and keeps things moving quickly from scene to scene.

As is typical of an Artists’ Ensemble show, the cast is superb. Moving us through the story is Stanton Davis as Constable Maunder, who handles narratorial duties for the show. The anchors of the storyline and its titular conspiracy are Carl Herzog as playwright Christopher Marlowe, and Christian Gray as his patron, Sir Thomas. All three of these men are talented actors. Their compatriots John Chase and David Jacobs play multiple roles, and do so expertly. Chase doubles as the sinister Sir Francis and a rather oafish “Willie” Shakespeare, while Jacobs plays a few roles ranging from desperate, to flamboyant, to unscrupulous. Their handling of the multiple characters is of particular commendation, but the cast as a whole is quite strong and each of these men does excellent work.

The design of the show also works well. The abstraction of the set is rather nicely implemented: oblique platforms with Shakespearean quotes scrawled across them, and a recurring rose motif on the flats and floor. Simple and elegant, the stylization allows a multitude of locales to be represented in an uncumbersome manner. Genny Bonavia’s costume design is also well done. Modernly set Shakespeare productions lost their novelty some time ago, and while this of course isn’t a work of the Bard, the subject matter may instill some rub-off of that fatigue. However, I would argue that the interpretation works well here, particularly because the costumes suit and reflect their characters so well. The electronic music used for scene transitions doesn’t necessarily seem gratingly out of place, but it is an interesting choice.

There are a lot of reasons to go see this production. The cast is consistently fantastic, as is the direction and design. The subject matter and storyline are a nice departure into little-tread territory (the hypothesis presented in the tale is rather interesting to ponder… and it’s always a good thing when a show entertains you, but also makes you think). Murder, spies, globetrotting, and intrigue may not be what traditionally come to mind when you think of Shakespeare as a historical figure, but go along for the ride and you will be quite entertained. Add in the fact that this show was written by talented local playwrights, and you should have ample reason to attend one of the remaining performances. The Shakespeare Conspiracy performs through March 30, and I would suggest you go see it.

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