Friday, 8 August 1997

The Popular Mechanicals, Aug 8, 1997

The Popular Mechanicals by Keith Robinson, Tony Taylor
 Shakespeare Mudfest
At Dancehouse until August 16, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Hebert around Aug 7, 1997

Acting badly is easy. Pretending to act badly is really difficult. Performing a parody of a Shakespearian comedy that requires comic actors to satirise bad acting is near insanity. Such is the bravado of a group of Melbourne University students as part of the Mudfest.

The Popular Mechanicals is a witty send-up of the "mechanicals" or tradesmen   who rehearse and perform 'the very tragical story of Pyramus and Thisbe' in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream.ˇ

Writers, Tony Taylor and Keith Robinson have integrated the original scenes from The Dream with some hilarious backstage Amateur Dramatic Society antics of the characters from the play. They draw on numerous comic styles ranging from Flanagan and Allan vaudeville routines and stand-up comedy to musical comedy chorus lines and puppet play.

The Am-Dram references abound and anyone who has ever rehearsed a classic with an amateur drama club will recognise the rigid artistic hierarchy, theatrical ignorance, waspish behaviour and poor acting of its members. The group's mindless adoration of a ring-in professional artiste from London is a scream, particularly when he is revealed to be a drunken hack with an ego the size of the MCG.

The text is fast and funny if a bit too camp for some tastes. It emphasises word plays and confusions, utilises linguistic and theatrical anachronisms and gives an after-life to these well-loved characters in a simpler manner than does Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but he was adapting from a tragedy, not a romantic comedy.

This student cast, directed by Simon Day who also performs, give the play their all. They are enthusiastic, lively and obviously having a great time that is the whole point of student drama.
There are a few moments that are in tune with the fast and furious slapstick of the play. The shark puppet aqua-ballet to Strauss is one and the comic business in the background of the Pyramus and Thisbe story is a hoot.

The problem is that the whole piece needs to pace up and cues need to be tightened. Much of the comic 'lazzi' or slapstick is laboured. The cast miss so many of the stylistic allusions and have such limited clown skills that the production is no longer a parody but an example of its comic target.


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