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Will and Testament 

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WILL AND TESTAMENT

Center Theater

It's every actor's dream--to die and go to heaven, where you get to audition for God and Shakespeare (not necessarily in that order). In Fredric Stone's one-man show Will and Testament, which he bills as a "life after death comedy," Stone plays a professional actor who, while riding his bike near Wrigley Field, is supposedly trampled to death by rabid Cubs fans celebrating the team's 1984 division championship.

The actor's unexpected flattening turns out to be both blessing and fantasy. As Stone describes it with stand-up skill, it lifts him to an Equity paradise. There he finds himself invited to try out for a heavenly theater company where God is the producer, the lavish theater has no roof, and the "angels" are, well, angels. (Presumably no flops are allowed--and who but a diabolical critic would dare pan the work of this company?)

But putting aside the celestial trappings, the real basis for Stone's high-stakes audition is that proverbial theatrical bedrock of "two boards and a passion." Will and Testament is an excuse to recite an assortment of lesser-known monologues (and one sonnet) that allow the actor to depict 15 characters from the Bard's bounty. With mixed results.

It's clear from Stone's unpretentious warm-up (which combines Hamlet's peerless advice to the players to act naturally with actors' standard preparatory tongue twisters) that Stone wants to soften, or at least unstiffen, his material. Intent on offering intimate, unforced, even conversational Shakespeare, he delivers, for example, Parolles's ferocious denunciation of virginity from All's Well That Ends Well as a piece of self-mocking cocktail chatter, against a backdrop of Gershwin music. He rapidly plays to exhaustion Jacques's "seven ages of man" speech from As You Like It, the light dying around him as he whispers the chilling "sans everything."

Stone builds Shylock's festering fury at the indignities he's endured in The Merchant of Venice, but curiously never allows it to explode, while Henry V's wooing of Katherine is so mildly rendered it effaces itself in the telling. Stone's most daring moment, when he launches into Cleopatra's 11th-hour recollection of her seduction of Antony, goes too far, foundering on his excessive depiction of femininity (no doubt something Shakespeare's original boy actor was warned to avoid).

Stone plays the house well, deftly bouncing his actor's reactions off the faces around him. And in timing and expression he's a wizard comic: his frenzied interpretation of Launcelot Gobbo's self-serving rationalizations for leaving Shylock's service and his expert mugging as Twelfth Night's Malvolio are vintage vaudeville.

The grander passages, where sincerity isn't enough, come off with less urgency. Casca's litany of ominous forebodings from Julius Caesar is perfunctory and Richard of Gloucester's villainous credo from Henry VI, Part Three falls back on technique, but Richard II's renunciation of earthly vanity registers its heartbreaking doom. Stone pounces on Claudio's uncompromising fear of death in Measure for Measure, building it with an intensity that lets the words peak for themselves.

As Stone delivers his goods, voice-overs of God and Shakespeare (who sound suspiciously--or appropriately--alike) provide a halting commentary (apparently Shakespeare prefers the less stodgy acting style of American actors to the technique of the Brits--uh-huh). God and Shakespeare also stop the audition for a premature intermission (supposedly while heaven undergoes a civil defense drill, the result of their fear of the dangerous planet beneath them).

Besides providing segues from speech to speech, these interruptions allow this resurrected actor to literally review his life as a sort of celestial slide show, to feel pangs of loneliness and lust for his far-distant wife, to wonder if his lack of faith will doom his chances for a heavenly contract, or to ache with a dawning awareness of death as he senses his molecules suddenly rearranged. Marginally interesting at best, all this subtext becomes so much dramatic clutter.

Besides Stone's low-key, laid-back delivery, Will and Testament is stymied by the lack of context provided these Shakespearean snippets. Instead of biographical details we should be shown why this actor loves Shakespeare. The torrent of confessionals keeps him from setting the scene for his selections. I'd have preferred more Shakespeare and less Stone.

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