Dissecting Shakespeare

With help from the Arts Council, Taste fest gets off to a solid start

Macbeth: bite-sized, for more convenient consumption.
Photo: Richard Brusky
Jacob Coakley

I’m at Springs Preserve, talking arts financing with Richard Barnaby, controller for the Metro Arts Council of Southern Nevada. He’s telling me about the Council’s plans, both to support the arts here and to promote Las Vegas elsewhere as a cultural hub.

He holds up his hand, palm out, and points at its center. “That’s ‘Vegas,’” he says, referring to the Strip. He then points to the rest of his palm. “But this is ‘Las Vegas,’” he adds. “We have to serve all of it.”

All of it, for the Council, includes the Strip, with its professional artists in large productions. It also includes artists exhibiting Downtown or on Water Street in Henderson, or putting on plays at small theaters or libraries. So the Council hopes to act as a fulcrum between the money—foundations, casinos, government—and the arts.

One of the first steps: the fledgling A Taste of Shakespeare event held at the Springs Preserve this past weekend. Twenty-minute “condensed” versions of Shakespeare classics played on two stages, while the actors relaxed in the center Rotunda, talking with audience members as they tasted wine, noshed on food from Wolfgang Puck’s Springs Cafe and chatted with Metro Arts Council volunteers.

The Details

A Taste of Shakespeare
Three stars

Taste is the brainchild of Dan Decker, artistic director for Las Vegas Playhouse and author of Anatomy of a Screenplay. Decker cut six scripts—Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, As You Like It, Hamlet, Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing—down to their central thematic elements and structured them around two main characters.

With funding from the Council, Decker hired professional actors, with such diverse Vegas credits as Mamma Mia!, the Star Trek Experience and the Insurgo Theater Movement. Still, cramming five acts of Shakespeare into 20 minutes is like trying to recite a sonnet while riding the roller coaster at Nascar Café—you might get through it, but the emotional hairpins will give you whiplash.

Macbeth and Hamlet were the most overwrought, as the actors sought to bring immediate intensity to situations that didn’t have time to build. King Lear fared better, with Michael Hartnett managing to tease out some of the touching service Kent provides Lear.

The extreme truncation worked best with the comedies, where witty banter and foolishness overcame the need for a strong emotional arc. Michael Cassano and Tracy Blackwell were good-natured hams during their sparring in Much Ado About Nothing, while Norma Westwood and Scottie Scott wound their way well through an As You Like It that featured more restructuring than any other play in the program.

Ultimately, tragedy Romeo and Juliet fared best of all—maybe because it never dealt with its tragedy at all. Lysander Abadia (Romeo) and Louisa Lawson (Juliet) gave delightful performances; their interpretation even made the balcony scene feel fresh.

Costumes were uniformly excellent, and the staging was as simple as it needed to be with two characters and 20 minutes. Decker would like to make this an annual event, with full-length productions in the future. Let’s hope he and the Council can make that happen.


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