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Shakespeare or Space Wars by Peripatetic Players banner

“And we used to always say to him, ‘Jesus Christ, George, you can write this shit, but you can’t say it.’”
– Harrison Ford, A&E Biography: George Lucas

A long time ago in a country far, far across the Atlantic, a poor playwright – influenced by the works to Terrence, Ovid, and even contemporaries like Thomas Kyd – took an old Italian tale and turned it into a contemporary story about warring houses and the two horny kids caught in the middle.

Some forty years ago, a Modesto, CA film-maker – influenced by the works of Thomas Malory, David Lean, and even serial westerns and sci-fi – took the premise of Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress and turned it into an intergalactic story about warring factions and the laser-sword-wielding monk-wizards caught in the middle.

Ever wonder what would happen if someone mashed-up those two properties for the enjoyment of young audiences? No? Well, it happened. I saw it myself one warm July day in Oakland.

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The Peripatetic Players return with their latest experiment in madcap mania. Befitting the work of an “artiste” of Samuel Peaches’ perceived quality, it was only a matter of time before he brought the world his own unique take on The Bard’s classic public domain tale of teen romance, Romeo & Juliet.

Unbeknownst to Samuel, company member Thumper has already sold the rest of the troupe on a stage interpretation on the heavily-copyrighted sci-fi classic “Space Wars,” created by the eternally-flannelled film-maker “Lorge Geucus”.

So, as Samuel’s vision of history’s most famous star-crossed lovers runs head-first into Thumper’s remix of that famous battle beyond the stars (no, not that one), our intrepid troupe learns the benefits of mashing-up Shakespeare with sci-fi.

Juliet has a Gay bestie and the Battle of Yavin is represented by paper planes thrown by the audience. That’s not me reaching for descriptions, those are two things that actually happen during this show, and they perfectly illustrate the sensibilities that went into the production. The Peripatetic Players consciously break the verisimilitude of the two plays-within-their-play and insist the audience focus attention on the inherent artificiality of theatre: the cheap sets; the mouth-made sound effects; the use of blatantly obvious pseudonyms that don’t even attempt to mask the fact that half the show copies a film everyone in the audience has already seen. And they do all of this whilst staying in-character as travelling minstrels.

There’s something quasi-Warholian about that. That doesn’t mean it’s entirely good, but when I see a show like A Night with Janis Joplin try to pass itself off as a play (or at least the pretentious idea of what the non-theatre-going-public thinks is a play) when it’s really just a glorified cover band, there’s something relieving about a show that revels in the artificiality of its medium and lets the audience in on the joke.

In fact, one of the best moments in the show has to do with Peripatetic Player Meekins (Sam Bertken) knowing Romeo & Juliet by reputation only, and therefore under the assumption that it ends happily. We know better. But with the appearance of “Lorge Geucus” (represented by a cardboard cutout) guiding our troupe, the concept of revising established work is introduced. It actually lets the adults in the audience ponder where one should stop when a piece of art is altered.

Although I wasn’t completely won over by the show due to how much it was aimed at kids (the Laws of Cynical Adulthood require that I make such a judgment – I signed a contract on my 21st birthday and I will honor it until my dying day), giving the parents some food for thought made it more than “just a silly kid’s show” for me.

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Still, that does put me in an awkward position in how to critique the performances. It being a kid’s show, all of the performances are “big”. I’ll say that having done children’s theatre myself, it’s easy to fall into the trap of just munching scenery rather than just projecting a little extra so as to keep little ones interested. Thankfully, this cast does the latter. The reason they highlight the artificiality of theatre is because they want to show it as a game that anyone can play. And they do – there’s quite a lot of audience interaction in this piece. It actually reminded me of something I’ll elaborate on further at the end. Needless to say, they keep things fun for big and little kids watching.

Since there was no program to identify anyone, I was lucky to find the company’s official website to give due credit to the tech folks behind this show. Given that this is an on-location show with nary an electronic device used by the troupe – save for those pantomimed as part of “Space Wars” – it’s the set design that really stands out. As designed by Megan Hillard, Paul Collins, and Joan Howard, it’s actually quite ingenious the way the set pieces (which look like they were painted in a summer camp art class, and I mean that as a compliment) so easily switch from Elizabethan backdrops to intergalactic death base with merely a turn. Viviana Matsuda’s costumes further add to the illusion that we’ve all stepped into the playtime of a bunch of big kids with wild imaginations. It’s like Muppet Babies, but the young lovers kill themselves.

The Peripatetic Player “Meekins” is played by Sam Bertken, someone with whom I was a member of the now-defunct company SF Theater Pub. The final proper show was Sam’s adaptation of King Lear, co-starring fellow Player Marlene Yarosh. You wouldn’t expect kids to be in the audience of a show put on in a bar, but indeed the final performance was attended by a woman who’d brought along her four- or five-year-old daughter. When the show started, the kid could not take her eyes off the performance. She darted her head back-and-forth as the actors ran all over the bar to murder, cajole, and seduce one another. I doubt she understood everything that was happening, but watching this kid fall in love with both Shakespeare and theatre warmed even my cold heart. (Alex Cox was also in the audience that night; he seemed to dig it, too.)

You can probably see why that show crossed my mind as I thought about this one. It’d be easy for me to succumb to my inner snob and say that classical work ought to be performed with the utmost reverence. But given the ubiquity of Romeo & Juliet and the “childishness” of that certain sci-fi saga, only a truly heartless person would fail to see the fun in putting them together.

Every play is someone’s first. If the kids with whom I saw this show on opening day (I know, this review is late) left with nothing else than a love for watching live performers, then the show is a rousing success.

GRADE:                B-

Shakespeare or Space Wars is scheduled to run until the 13th of August at various venues around the Bay Area.
The show runs roughly 80 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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