The pre-show music fades and the lights dim. An excited young woman pops up from the audience to announce that, to properly introduce the show, we’ll hear from the “author” himself.
It’s William Shakespeare, of course. Or Willy Shakes as he’s sometimes referred to during the course of the night. The girl is so clearly full of enthusiasm, so giddy to dive in she practically runs through her lines without a breath.
Then hear from Willy Shakes we do. The young woman gives the stage over to five other performers, each of whom take a chunk of Shakespearean text that typifies villainy and recite it with the same glee the young woman showed. One thing is immediately clear: these young actors from This Ain’t Real Theatre Company (Oxford, Ohio) are devout students of the Bard. The material, after all these years, still excites them. Whatever flaws Villainy has as a work of theater, let’s be clear: Lack of energy isn’t one of them.
The play is set up in five acts, with a prologue and epilogue attached. There are also intermittent video scenes involving a vengeful teen and the “World of Warcraft” game, which admittedly could have been either funnier or more poignant.
The acts generally follow one of Shakespeare’s great villains or villainous acts. There are fight scenes from Romeo and Juliet, the pre-murder scene between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (“Screw your courage to the sticking place, and we'll not fail!”) and bits from Julius Caesar and Hamlet.
In all, the aim of the piece — on paper, anyway — is to examine what makes a villain … villainous? What separates him or her from the rest of the characters in fiction? The examination is certainly a worthy endeavor. And as mentioned, the creator (writer/director/actor Justin Baldwin) and performers attack the issue with zeal. One wonders, however, if the exercise could be more streamlined?
For instance, some of the classic Shakespearean scenes of murder or evil-plotting are presented straight, with no twist or take. And some are not. Like the Supreme Court-styled presentation of the murder trial of Brutus. It might not have worked entirely, especially the Declaration of Independence interpolation. But it was a fresh take.
Also fresh (and decidedly fringey) was the modern-day monologue about a boy finding and killing an animal in the front yard, infused with Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” speech. But then the scene gets away from itself and becomes a straight restaging of the Hamlet/Ophelia scene (“Get thee to a nunnery!”).
The last act and epilogue help the show find its strongest footing, because both use the Shakespearian material as a jumping off point for contemporary commentary. The scene of “Villains Anonymous,” wherein all the great antagonists are put in a room together and forced to confront their issues, is exactly what one wants to see throughout the show. It’s then that the playwright’s voice shows through most clearly.
When your source material is Shakespeare, you can understand being intimidated inserting one’s own voice into the proceedings. But that clearly is what this piece calls for. And when Baldwin and his cast do that, the show works best.
Performed at New Stage Collective through June 4. See performance dates and preview here.