When a man dressed only in tight green briefs greets you at the door, you know you're in for an interesting night of theater.
Call it Shakesqueer.
The gay, gender-swapped version of Much Ado About Nothing by StageQ (through Oct. 12 at the Bartell Theatre) presents an alternate take on the play's two iconic love stories. The first, the story of Hero and Claudio, is love at first sight. The other, about Beatrice and Benedick, is acerbic but just as hot. As hot as Shakespeare can be, that is.
Some elements of StageQ's production from new artistic director Audrey Lauren Wax work. Setting the show in a gay nightclub, for instance, allows for fun elements like club music and a rapping DJ. The production also re-imagines Beatrice (Craig Alan Schlagel) as a drag queen, which is perhaps what she was truly meant to be. Like Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, Beatrice prefers her men skewered. She spends much of the show telling Benedick all about himself, something Shlagel pulls off drag-lightfully, all the while looking damn good in a black-and-white electric mini. (Thank you, costume designer James D. Clayton).
It's fun to see yet another vehicle for drag in Madison, especially following the recent RuPaul's Drag Race: Battle of the Seasons show at the Barrymore. It's also a joy to step into an alternate world where soldiers confess their gay affection to their captains as though reporting maneuvers on a battlefield.
But this production isn't totally radical and new. Originally, some 425 years ago, the characters in Shakespeare's plays -- and love affairs, right down to the story of Romeo and Juliet -- were portrayed only by men. So while the blatant queer references are an original twist, the gender play is not.
Itâ€™s hard to get Shakespeare right, especially for unseasoned actors new to the cadence and archaic quality of his words. Unfortunately, the StageQ production struggles in this way. On Saturday night, certain actors acted as though the audience also had no idea what Shakespeare was saying. Schlagel, however, brought pop to every scene, as did the ever-changing undies of Duane Campbell (Ursula). (Thanks again, Mr. Clayton.)
Kyle Haarklau was a standout. His seriously menacing portrayal of love bespoiling Don John bristled from the stage. He also arrived just in time for Halloween. I'd like to personally invite him to stand on my front porch and scare children in October.
Just one more note from this ex-Angelino. The program stated that the play was set in East Hollywood, but methinks StageQ really means West. No self-respecting queer, Shakespearean or otherwise, would be caught dead east of La Brea on a Saturday night.