World Premiere of “An Improbable Fiction” Opens American Players Theatre LIVE Performances In Their Hill Theater.

This amazing intersection of all things Shakespeare as written by James DeVita, and directed by Tim Ocel, brings smiles and nods to every theater nerd in the audience…even those with only a passing fancy in the Bard. But before you think that Mr. DeVita leaves us stranded in Elizabethan London, he has brought much to bear in the dialogue that brings us to contemporary culture and society…a mirror that spans centuries. To open, here are the footnotes from the video presentation that I watched since I wasn’t able to attend in person in Spring Green:

This world-premiere play is, among many other wonderful things, a glorious gift to lit-nerd wish fulfillment, providing a heartfelt and hilarious answer to the question “what would it be like to sit out the plague at a bar with your five favorite Shakespearean characters?” (We know! We’ve thought about it too!) Like the very best taverns, this story is buoyed by community, and ringing with good cheer; a tale that feels custom-made for APT. Because it was.

Featuring: Tracy Michelle Arnold (Cleopatra), Sarah Day (Mistress Nell Quickly), Chiké Johnson, (Othello), Brian Mani (Sir John Falstaff), Melisa Pereyra (Juliet) & Ronald Román-Meléndez (The Messenger).

So where should I start? Well, let’s riff off the conceit of the play and contemporary humor. Othello, Cleopatra, and Juliet walked into a bar where all the world’s a stage and Sir John Falstaff is the sun. So yes, Falstaff holds sway over this grand stage. He draws all of the characters in and draws all of the characters out. Mr. DeVita has done a marvelous job in keeping Falstaff true to his Shakespearean persona while also bringing us a new and more empathetic character. And for me, Brian Mani, after this tour de force performance, will forever own the role! Bravo!!

screen capture by Ed Heinzelman of Brian Mani as Sir John Falstaff

But while Falstaff is the sun, The Messenger is the glue that holds the story line in place. Although these characters are all from far far different plays, they are all a part of the Shakespearean universe and not only seem to know each other but each others backstories as well. But the one player that they do have in common is here in The Improbable Fiction. The Messenger shows up throughout the canon as one nameless bit player or another and is familiar to each of the others at the face recognition level. His appearance always draws a puzzled look and a shaken head of recognition when the connection is finally made. And Ronald Román-Meléndez brings exactly that right balance of exposition to the play while maintaining the character’s subordinate place in the action…until he doesn’t and then the action pivots. Not a simple thing…but critically important to the fiber of this play. As you can see from this question directed to him and his reply:

Why so quiet lad?

When my cue comes I will answer!

And yes I mentioned that this play is also of our time…and the characters have something to say about the pandemic, misogyny, and racism. I am quoting from the play but in a very poor paraphrase because I was note taking while watching and now can’t always read my own handwriting.

Fallstaff on the pandemic: “It’s not the damn plague will kill me, it’s the solitude.”

or “Sad hours seem long.”

Othello on racism: ” No color could they see were there battles I could win. Then I was I the noble Moor. Loved for only what I can do. Yet I could bear this, I’ve done all my life.”

Juliet on misogyny: “These men…ever and anon endeavoring to fashion our lives unto their desires.”

My apologies in advance to James DeVita for my errors…

Chiké Johnson & Tracy Michelle Arnold, An Improbable Fiction, 2021. Photo by Liz Lauren. Courtesy of the American Players Theatre.

But despite the particulars that apply to our contemporary era, this play will play and be understood and appreciated for as long as Shakespeare is presented on stage…and it should become part of the repertoire of any and every Shakespearean theater company. It will be much appreciated.

How comes it you know all that?

I am the messenger!

Sarah Day, Brian Mani, Melisa Pereyra, Chiké Johnson & Tracy Michelle Arnold, An Improbable Fiction, 2021. Photo by Liz Lauren. Courtesy of the American Players Theatre.

And now a few bit off the track remarks. This world premiere opened the 2021 Hill Theatre season of live performance. But it was originally offered by APT as a streamed reading in July 2020 and also featured Brian Mani as Falstaff and Sarah Day as Miss Quickly. It was mesmerizing then but the comparison to this live on stage performance is of course night and day and I can’t wait to get back into the theater. (And I am sore amazed that I did not write a response at the time or I would have linked to it here.) But I do think there is a future where theater and Zoom will co-mingle and continue to entertain us but that’s for another post.

Ronald Román-Meléndez, Sarah Day, Melisa Pereyra & Chiké Johnson, An Improbable Fiction, 2021. Photo by Liz Lauren. Courtesy of the American Players Theatre.

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