Sept. 11--One of the winning things about the shows at TheatreNOW -- amazingly, nearly a dozen original dinner theater productions have been staged there since the fledgling venue opened in 2012 -- is that they're, in general, crowd-pleasing but smart.
That trend continues with "The Bard's Broads," by Anthony Lawson, which is appropriate, since the whole crowd-pleasing-but-smart concept was pretty much invented by William Shakespeare, whose work the show lovingly satires.
The bawdy tale -- it never really crosses the line into raunchy -- is set in The Dirty Quill, which is imagined as the favorite pub of a young Will Shakespeare. Thanks to the infectious energy of an enthusiastic young cast, "The Bard's Broads" may be the most entertaining show TheatreNOW has staged yet. There are plenty of laughs, a few rousing songs, a deliciously rustic meal by chef Denise Gordon and a whole lot of audience interaction, if you're into that sort of thing. (If you're like me, just keep your eyes on your plate when the performers make one of many excursions into the crowd.)
Lawson, sporting a beard that's like its own entity, also directs and plays Mule, the proprietor of The Dirty Quill. He warms up the audience with some witty banter about how, like many a pub owner before (and after) him, he has long welcomed undesirable artist types such as Shakespeare. He then introduces us to three "serving wenches": the oversexed Desdemona (Kristina Auten, who is winsomeness personified), the hammer-dumb Ophelia (Anna Gamel, playing her character's thickness for laughs) and the sullen Gertrude (Liz Bernardo, darkly funny).
The show's central conceit is that young Will based some of his female characters on these serving wenches and adapted their stories from the tales they told. Which seems more like stealing than writing, but then again, those who take up the pen have been known to crib details from the people who surround them.
A nice touch on the menu is the drinks named after the characters, including Desdemona's Strawberry Wine, a take on sangria; Ophelia's Floral-Tini, a reference to her decorated demise; and Gertrude's Dagger, a mix of Gaelic Ale and cider with a currant float. Would that I could've tried them all.
You don't need to be a Shakespeare scholar to enjoy the show -- in case you were wondering, the wenches' names come from "Othello" (Desdemona) and "Hamlet" -- but it's helps to have a working knowledge so that you'll understand why Ophelia tends to cry out, "I could just die!" at the drop of a hat.
Unlike Shakespeare, there's very little plot. It's more like a series of stories, audience interactions and silly games. (Shakespearean limerick fill-in-the-blank evokes shades of NPR's news quiz, "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!")
But what "The Bard's Broads" lacks in story line it makes up for with its characters, who are exaggerated, more down-to-earth versions of the ones we know. Plus, with the cast having so much fun, it's hard not to join in.
Speaking of fun characters, Patrick Basquill plays tavern boy Philip Bates (a joke about "Master Bates" is shamelessly stolen from Richard Pryor's movie "The Toy") with an air of understated insouciance. Basquill has an amazing singing voice and a spot-on sense of comic timing that he uses to deliver jaunty little numbers, while playing guitar, that are pretty much the best thing in the show.
Things build toward a much-anticipated appearance by Will Shakespeare (Nick Reed, playing it cocky and clueless), who's treated with kid gloves of the kind that are reserved for rock stars these days. Not to spoil things, but one character's demise teases the audience with a descent into that dinner theater staple, the murder mystery, before Lawson pulls things back with a comic sword fight.
In general, the energy ebbs toward the end of the show. Or maybe that was the just the effect of chef Gordon's succulent Cornish game hen, served with roasted root vegetables and whole grain rice pilaf. It's a nice, rustic touch, and her spice cake swimming in custard makes for a fine finish.
John Staton: 343-2343
On Twitter: @Statonator
What: "The Bard's Broads," by Anthony Lawson, a dinner theater production presented by TheatreNOW
When: 6 p.m. doors, 7 p.m. show, Sept. 13-14, 20-21 and 27-28
Where: TheatreNOW, 19 S. 10th St., Wilmington
Tickets: $38, includes show and dinner but not beverages and gratuity. $18 show only
Details: 399-3669 or www.TheatreWilmington.com
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