Lauren Gunderson’s Toil and Trouble is a very new play inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The title page of her script calls it a “Scottish-ish” comedy. Know Theatre of Cincinnati is giving the script just its second production. It premiered at Impact Theatre in Berkeley, Calif., last November, the second of her “cycle” of plays with links to Shakespeare’s works. The first was Exit, Pursued by a Bear, inspired by The Winter’s Tale, and she has two more in the pipeline: We Are Denmark (drawn from Hamlet) and The Taming (a contemporary take on The Taming of the Shrew).
Rather than kings and warriors plotting for power and inspired by three witches, Toil and Trouble’s characters are three 30-year-olds, sharing a hipster apartment, mired in low-end employment (or unemployment) in the Bay Area. Adam (Chris Wesselman), with an M.B.A. and a lot of out-there ideas to make money but no real income, lives with Matt (Joshua Murphy), a weak-willed activist and wannabe peace advocate who is disdainful of sports. That latter point is evolving because he and Adam are both attracted to their third roommate Beth (Breona Conrad), an ambitious, brash TV sports reporter.
The guys are just barely getting by but unwilling to get low-end jobs. So when Adam concocts a dubious scheme to take over a desolate island off the coast of Chile just long enough to shear some highly prized wool from “miniature vicuña” (tiny alpacas, which they dub “mini-vacs”) and parlay that into millions — well, it’s far-fetched enough to seem plausible. Their plot seems blessed by messages from several fortune cookies, the play’s stand-in for Macbeth’s witches.
Before long, Shakespeare’s tragedy’s themes of ambition, fate, deception, treachery and regret are playing out in 21st-century California, with Matt and Beth (get it? Matt/Beth = Macbeth) contemplating murder to cut Adam out of the deal. There are numerous comic turns involving ghosts, swords, more fortune cookies and riddling prophesies before the play arrives at its laughable conclusion. Toil and Trouble is a comedy and, unlikely as it seems that the slackers could actually pull off a “coup from the couch,” things do end well. (Well, more or less.)
Know’s artistic director Eric Vosmeier has staged the show, and it’s the kind of in-the-moment, fast-talking theater he revels in. Alas, he has allowed his cast to be so loud and broad that they all come across as birds of a feather in slightly different plumage: They squawk and scheme and scream — but the story steps so far beyond anything believable that the larger humor gets lost.
Wesselman is a fine comic performer who excels at being over the top. Murphy embodies a wuss who’s “liberal, not angsty” and who dismisses then embraces his character Adam’s crazy notions. Conrad’s brassy, loud presence seems right for her role, but there’s no real rationale for any attraction between her and either guy. They are more caricatures than characters.
Vosmeier has pitched the show at a furious clip in accordance with Gunderson’s tumultuous script. In fact, things get even more chaotic in the second act. (The show is about 105 minutes, including an intermission.) But her writing seldom strives for anything beyond flip, surface humor and gags — even when seemingly profound lines from and references to Shakespeare’s tragedy are inserted, hot and heavy.
Gunderson herself is 30, the same age she pegs for her characters. It’s evident she knows and is writing to her demographic cohort: She provides her characters with a vast array of memorable, in-the-moment quips, like Beth’s rationale for murder: “Feminism means I get to be evil, too.” But I don’t think Toil and Trouble has enough heart to truly capture a broader audience.
There is, by the way, a link between Gunderson and Cincinnati: She’s a Georgia native, where her early career was nurtured by Jasson Minadakis, when he led Atlanta’s Actor’s Express. Minadakis landed there in 2002 after eight years in Cincinnati as the founder of Cincinnati Shakespeare. His next stop, at Marin Theatre Company in the Bay Area, was another opportunity to champion Gunderson. He presented her work in San Francisco, where she now lives and has a theatrical home at Impact Theatre.
Impact, founded in 1996, sounds a lot like Know, which started in 1997. The California theater “speaks to a new generation of theatergoers and longtime enthusiasts who want to see something fresh and fearless onstage, featuring new plays by emerging playwrights.” By the way, Impact has excelled at giving vital, contemporary spins to Shakespeare’s plays.
TOIL AND TROUBLE, presented by Know Theatre, continues through Aug. 24.