"I like it that the play is comedy, that it's farce, that it has pathos, that it's stupid, that it's sophomoric--and it's Shakespeare too," said Jack Grapes of his and Bill Cakmis' "Circle of Will," currently at the Zephyr Theatre.

Early, speculative Shakespeare, one hastens to add.

"It's about the young Will Shakespeare (played by Grapes) and the young Richard Burbage (Cakmis), before any of Will's plays get off the ground," Cakmis said. "Right now, he's just writing schlock; he hasn't figured out the formula yet. So he keeps writing plays like 'The Merchant of Denmark,' 'Romeo and Cleopatra' and 'The Tragedy of Errors.' "

Pure make-believe? Not necessarily. "The truth of the matter is that for eight years, what we call his 'lost years,' we really don't know what Shakespeare was doing," said Grapes. "The conjecture is that he was a young actor working in London--and probably doing what a lot of young actor/writers did: writing small pieces of plays for these historical dramas. Chances are that Shakespeare was probably not a very good playwright in the beginning. So we make fun of that, as if to say, 'This actually happened.' "

"We also make fun of ourselves," Grapes added. "There's a lot of us in it. I mean, I play Shakespeare--but in real life, I'm also a poet as well as an actor. So, I felt very comfortable absorbing the characteristics of each of the characters we were writing. Bill could write lines for Will that (rendered the character) stubborn and foolish--and I didn't feel bad about coming up with lines for Bill that were pompous, spoofing that whole intensity and self-importance of an actor."

The piece, which was created four years ago as a 10-minute scene study for acting class, has since adapted a new focus, extended, re-extended--and now according to Grapes, touches on everything from "philosophy to poetry, theater, comedy, improvisation and magic. (The show opens with a witty magic act by Mark Paskell.)

"It is a real kitchen sink," Grapes nodded affably. "Parts of the play are witty, parts of it are like a high school skit, some is like burlesque. And yet there's also some really serious drama in there. I do have a tendency to mix comedy with tragedy. Some of my best poems," said Grapes, who just published his "8 1/2th" book of poetry, "Trees, Coffee and the Eyes of Deer," "are funny, then suddenly serious--then they're funny again.

"It's the same thing here. I like sucking in an audience with comedy, then dropping (the more meaningful message): boom . If you're open with an audience, they'll take you in. I put myself out there, just as they would if they were being real. And if what you're doing is true, it'll be true for everyone."

Grapes' extends that truth--and interpersonal ease--directly into his theater audiences, where he has been known to perch on a lap and start up a homey conversation: "If you, as the actor, love the audience, are not afraid of them, it'll all be fine. You can't go wrong."

A similar ease exists between the writing partners, whose common emotional/theatrical wave length belies very different backgrounds: Cakmis, who lists his age as 27-33 for casting purposes, is a Florida native, teaches acting locally and is a veteran of 55 regional stage productions; Grapes, 44, was born in New Orleans, studied history at Tulane University, did improvisation at Chicago's Second City and now teaches poetry at UCLA Extension.

"We listen to each other," Cakmis said simply. "When we were putting this together, we'd sit for hours discussing--characters, concept, everything --before we ever wrote anything down. Then I'd bring paper, he'd bring paper. I'd go to his section, he'd go to mine . . . and by the end, we really had a play we'd both written. Of course, we've had times, as in any marriage, when we'd get crazed--just like in the play. But the outcome, also just like the play, is that we keep going, keep doing it, keep creating--and keep having fun."

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