Sunday, June 3, 2007

Shakespeare: The Musical

(Alternate Titles: "Shakespeare in Manhattan" or "The Place Beneath.")

Shakespeare re-appears on earth to mortals--at the Harvard Yacht Club, drinking a cosmopolitan and smoking a Winston Ultra Light, with Saint Dymphna, who in this incarnation is a black woman who runs a nightclub on the upper west side.

Shakespeare's appearance causes a very minor sensation. He is on Page Six and everything.

Ultimately, of course, he is hired to write the book and lyrics for a new Broadway musical: "Three Iz Da Funk"--an all-black hip-hop adaptation of the TV show Three's Company.

A savage once-major critic eagerly looks forward to the opening. He has a long-standing grudge against the producer, and no one pays attention to his reviews anymore: he fell from grace when he wrote a savage pan of a children's Easter pageant. His wife divorced him, and he went from a prestigious paper to a crappy one.

So our critic friend is looking forward to writing a searing pan of something everyone agrees is bad--to set everyone on their ear laughing and jeering at the new show to put him back on his perch.

Shakespeare turns out to be a hack. He dumps in all his usual tricks: women dressing as men, people feigning madness, soliloquies--old stuff nobody does anymore. It's awful--even more awful than the original premise, or the original show (if possible).

The show gets worse and worse. The director's a pretentious British windbag, which doesn't help. And the black cast includes actors who should get better material and are fairly sick and bitter about the gig from the get-go.

Gossip gets out to the critic, who's fairly salivating. He'll get his old job back. His reviews will be quoted on posters. Maybe his ex-wife will patch things up. Maybe he'll even get an easy job--like reviewing movies.

But Shakespeare proves acutely psychologically insightful and helps all the actors in the show (and the woman who washes up the theater, too). Everywhere he goes, he dispenses marvelous insight to people and changes their lives. He's beloved.

It turns out "Shakespeare" is just a washed-up actor nobody remembers named Ted Fearfield. (The ancient stagehands remember, but they never bother to mention it.) He once ran in Titus Andronicus on Broadway for all of three performances. Other than that, he had minor parts and was quickly forgotten. The Titus wasn't that bad, but he screwed a major critic's wife--you can guess whose--and that single savage review ended the show and his career. The critic left his wife, and she's who knows where.

As if by magic, the show starts going well. There's positive buzz everywhere. People are talking about awards, movie adaptations, transfer to Vegas.

The major critic keeps being on the verge of remembering the has-been actor. He has to meet a tight-ass at the restaurant Andronico's. That reminds him of something.... Someone tries to think of Shakespeare's bloodiest play. They list all of them (except Titus): he can't quite recall the title. (Only a waiter remembers.) It's only when his dinner arrives and it's a big plate of ham that he remembers shouts "Ted Fearfield."

The critic runs to the library to get the review, a photo, an old program, proving "Shakespeare" is really Ted Fearfield. The resemblance is dim. No one can match up the picture with the actor.

But a rumor starts. There's gossip in the gossip pages (again). But people stand up for the "Shakespeare": the show's cast, its director, even just random people on the street.

The critic finally confronts the actor, tries to get him to confess, or to trap him. But the actor cannot be stopped. Who is "Ted Fearfield" anyway? Can anyone even find his birth certificate? It was just a stage name. He realized one day there was nothing to prove he ever existed, and he realized that was his great opportunity in life--to start fresh, to make every day of living magical, the way it is in great drama, to create a whole new life, the way playwrights do. Or the way actors do every night when that curtain goes up and they're whomever they imagine themselves to be, whomever they can convince the audience they are, because the audience wants to believe in magic.

'Shakespeare,' with his infallible psychological insight, makes the critic realize what a sham his life has been and how his whole life should have been centered around his former wife. He accepts the truth of the actor's insight, decides to give up on panning the show.

All's almost resolved when the police show up. "Shakespeare" owes $8,612 dollars in parking tickets dating back thirty years--not including interest. His fingerprints are on the paperwork to prove he's just a guy who drove a cab for a dozen years many years ago.

That night in jail "Shakespeare" works his magic on the guards, the other prisoners. Everyone loves him--even his public defender lawyer.

It's opening night. The crowds are tremendous, the cast tearful. It's a real "the-show-must-go-on" moment. But the critic isn't there: his seat's empty.

He knocks on his ex-wife's door. He begs, pleads, to be taken back. She takes him back without a fuss. She would have done so at any time, she says. All he had to do was ask. "The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath."

The next morning is to be "Shakespeare's" first court appearance. It's a zoo--straight out of Meet John Doe. The actors are their, clutching their great reviews and still carrying champagne glasses. TV camera crews interview the partisans: he's a great old guy, who cares if he's a fraud; what's a fake anyway, aren't we all fakes; I'll pay his parking tickets; they should hang him; etc. The usual media circus of craziness.

But when the police come to his cell take "Shakespeare" for his first court appearance, he's gone. Vanished.

The critic and his wife grab a cab to city hall to get remarried. The cabbie looks awfully familiar. Is it? It isn't. Or is it?

--E. R. O'Neill

P.S. I literally dreamt this one last night.

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