The play Shakespeare the Dead takes place on a movie set and joins the time-honored tradition of using that space as an arena for cruelty, obsession, abuse, and madness. Despite the setting, however, the play isn't about entertainment, it is entertainment; a gleeful and shameless indulgence of its own formidable skills at creating fun.
Shakespeare opens on the set of a present-day film adaptation of Macbeth, and populates itself with a cartoonish cast of characters—a heartthrob leading man, a spaced-out director with a pony tail, a hyper-enthusiastic producer, a hippy-dippy writer in a Stevie Nicks dress, and, perhaps quietly stealing the show, a timid intern. When we join them at their first meeting, their first order of business is to free themselves from an old superstition that this particular Shakespeare play holds a curse against film adaptations, by repeating its name out loud. The moment they have reluctantly done so, a sinister stranger arrives. He is the new studio executive—the former one has died in a gruesome car crash and the body has been relieved of its hands! Oh, and the studio doesn't want a Shakespeare movie any more. Now it's just straight horror. So it begins.
The stranger, another cartoonish type defined by a threatening pair of black gloves that never come off, assumes control of the production, stepping on the toes of everyone present. One might expect him to quickly turn up as dead body number two, but the play doesn't go in any such predictable direction.
The performances are excellent all around, and despite their stereotypical nature, the characters have room to breathe. After we get to watch a take from the movie-within-the-play (incidentally one of my favorite bits in the show), the play unfolds not so much as a series of events but a series of (very entertaining) conversations. There is a constant foreshadowing of doom, interrupted by mundane details about coffee runs and parties on the company card.
The play is farce but doesn't rely on any of the stock premises of that form—the mistaken identities, misconceptions, deceptions, or hammering of joke-as-central-premise into the ground. Instead it luxuriates in its own little world, which seems to occur at an intersection of Kafkaesque paranoia, old-movie whimsy (and the best satires of it), and just a smidgen of seriousness and believability.
Writer Alex Mills (who also plays the Stranger) is adept at gently breaking some rules of narrative structure while adhering to others. The dialogue is nimble and kinetic, and things occur to interrupt it at well-timed intervals. Yet the story seems almost to stay at square one, though what square one is keeps changing. There is a murder mystery or slasher flick trying to break through, some kind of story of foul play, but it stays in the background and I don't think the audience really misses it. As it is, the play is not only possessed of excellent pacing, but actually picks up momentum and gets funnier as it goes—even if we have very little idea where it might be going. Humor seems to come from out of nowhere. A shriek, a mumble, a single mundane line suddenly seem funny from timing and context. "Greg is my friend" is one of the biggest laugh lines in the play...you have to be there.
Shakespeare the Dead is a hell of a lot of fun. Too fun for me to call it black comedy, or even particularly dark. Perhaps there is an existential story, along with the horror movie, trying to break through, or some allegory about classicism meeting modernism. It doesn't, and is no worse for it in my opinion. I am perfectly content to simply enjoy the weird harmonies and unpredictability of this idiosyncratic piece.