Within the first few minutes of “The $5 Shakespeare Company,” one character gives an impassioned speech about the lasting impact of Shakespeare. Keeping the Bard’s work alive is at the center of this play by Matthew Leavitt at Theatre 68 in North Hollywood.
The 6th Act production centers on a low-cost Shakespeare troupe in the midst of a struggling run of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which is drawing only a few audience members each night. When the artistic director, a former sitcom star (Adam J. Smith), announces that the troupe is being considered for the opening slot of the summer Shakespeare in the Park series, the group’s future begins to look up. Cue the slew of chaotic mishaps.
Leavitt’s script is sharp, with a fluid and nuanced plot. Details mentioned in passing come back around for satisfying punchlines later. The characters are piercingly vibrant, their connections to one another messy and tension-filled, so when the cast members of this play-within-a-play act out their “Midsummer” scenes, they deliver some of the biggest laughs of the night. Part farce, part tribute to the Bard, these scenes draw the audience fully into the world of “The $5 Shakespeare Company.”
The actors shine individually and as an ensemble with a pulsating chemistry. Emerson Collins and Andy Robinson as “Midsummer” actors Everett and Chester are especially notable. Collins plays Everett with a physicality that’s exaggerated and bold. Robinson is sharp and ruthless in his portrayal of Chester, an actor nearing the end of his career.
Joel Zwick’s direction is seamless, conquering the challenge of having as many as 10 actors onstage at once. His deft control of the antics is aided by a set design (Chris Winfield) that mirrors the tumultuous nature of the fictional company while providing enough open space for the production to depict a stage within the Theatre 68 stage.
Meta stories often are complicated to pull off. The contrived nature of theater is put directly under the microscope by the play itself. But “The $5 Shakespeare Company” proves to be cleverly self-referential, bursting with humor that pulls the audience into the world of theater actors. It’s a love letter to Shakespeare and to theater lovers.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through March 8
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
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