Theater Review: THE $5 SHAKESPEARE COMPANY (The 6th Act at Theatre 68 in North Hollywood)

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by Marc Wheeler on February 16, 2020

in Theater-Los Angeles


In Christopher Guest’s brilliant 1996 mockumentary Waiting For Guffman, the smalltown residents of Blaine, MO, come together to put on a show. But what if instead the residents in the film made the movie themselves? That’s the level of ironic self-unawareness permeating The $5 Shakespeare Company, a woeful work by Matthew Leavitt getting its world premiere at Theatre 68 in the NoHo Arts District under the misguided direction of Joel Zwick.

Presented by The 6th Act theater company (where Leavitt serves as co-artistic director), The $5 Shakespeare Company wants to be a love letter to intimate theater in Los Angeles, yet ends up representing much of what plagues it. In the play, a barely scraping by Hollywood-based theater troupe – “The $5 Shakespeare Company” – is putting on a Hawaiian-themed production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As the name suggests, tickets are $5, allowing anyone (as in Elizabethan times) to experience the Bard – not that the company believes anyone in LA gives a flip about Shakespeare. The show occurs both backstage and onstage during a performance wherein – as luck would have it! – a bigwig from the local city parks department is in attendance, giving them a shot at the prestigious Summer of Shakespeare festival. Do they have what it takes to make it to the bigtime?

Comedies about actors, as demonstrated in It’s Only a Play and Noises Off, can be highly entertaining, especially in the characters’ self-deprecation. $5 Shakespeare, however, forgoes essentials – like an entertaining plot driven by dramatic action – and inserts instead a series of stagnant scenes involving actors who amount to nothing more than role listings on Breakdown Services. Rather than moving the story forward, they endlessly describe themselves and pontificate on theater and acting. Sure, local audiences may be amused by the play’s LA references and feel part of the “in-crowd.” They may also nod and smile in how the work makes fun of New Age cultism preying on actors or intimate theater’s politically correct agendas (that is, when it isn’t subscribing to some of them itself). But beyond that, this self-adoring work largely forgets the other half of the theater where an audience exists waiting for something – anything – to happen.

The show is about a ragtag company with a shoestring budget in a hole-in-the-wall theater, but since it’s presented by another ragtag company with a shoestring budget in a hole-in-the-wall theater, it’s hard to know where art ends and reality begins. (Is this fiction or documentary?) For all its insider knowledge, it’s uncomfortably insular. Even as it makes fun of the fact small theaters often have more people onstage than in the audience (most of them friends and family of the cast), it never stops to ask why this is. Maybe it doesn’t want to know. Maybe it’s answering itself.

There is a moment near the end where a seasoned performer gives an impassioned monologue about the magic of theater and his love of the craft of acting. It’s funny and heartfelt and, as a stand-alone moment, it works. (Unfortunately, every other actor has to give their impassioned monologues, too, weakening its impact – oh, actors! oh, playwright!) This “What I Did for Love!” moment is at the heart of what this show seemingly wants to be about. And yet, by displaying so many in the troupe as either untalented, uncommitted, or unprofessional, it undermines its own case. In a climate where even Equity — the stage actors’ own union — is doing their darndest to make it nearly impossible for 99-seat theaters to survive (including those producing stellar, innovative work), this particular “love letter” isn’t helping.

In the performance reviewed, actor Joel Bryant, with 24-hours’ notice, stepped into a role of Noel to replace an injured actor for what may or may not be a singular night. With book in-hand, he rarely used it. Even with Leavitt’s dialog that, as Hamlet said, doesn’t fall “trippingly on the tongue,” he delivered one of the show’s top performances. Maybe, ironically, The $5 Shakespeare Company got its message across after all.

photos by Karianne Flaathen

The $5 Shakespeare Company
The 6th Act
Theatre 68, 5112 Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on March 8, 2020
for tickets ($35), visit EventBrite or The 6th Act

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