Written with love and exasperation by author Matthew Leavitt, THE $5 SHAKESPEARE COMPANY shares the fun and frustration of doing intimate theater in Los Angeles. With the 99-seater on the block, Leavitt weaves humor and compassion into the tale of a down-and-out Shakespeare acting company trying to make it in Hollywood – even when there are more people in the cast than in the theater. In a venue like Los Angeles – where film and television are king – these earnest young (and not so young) actors work for little-to-no-money just for the chance to get up on a stage and lose themselves in the joy of forming a creative cocoon for the audience to savor for a few hours.
A former celebrity in show business, Jacob (Adam J. Smith) left the spotlight under a cloud to form the $5 Shakespeare Company – all the while hoping to re-create his early love for the theater and the camaraderie it offered. Now barely making it, the company has one last shot at fame and fortune: the summer “Shakespeare in the Park” troupe is moving on, leaving a hole in the city arts schedule which they hope to fill. As the group performs “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” in the middle of winter, each member aspires to make his mark.
Young and flighty Camille (Cindy Nguyen) has a well-heeled papa to thank for her current opportunity, while aging Chester (Andy Robinson) dreams of playing the penultimate role of Lear. Randall (Kenajuan Bentley) likes to play the field but has recently focused in on Elena (Carolina Espiro), his current flame – who secretly hopes that theirs will be a permanent gig. Louis (Luke McClure) wants to be fairy Tatiana above all; but, unfortunately for him, this is the role which Lillian (Liza Seneca) regards as her personal property. Spencer (Natalie Lander) has just landed a plum role on television – with most of the perks going to a certain cult-like organization which pulled some strings. Everett (Emerson Collins) and Noel are just happy to be working.
Director Joel Zwick does an excellent job of defining each actor while allowing the ensemble mood to take over. The actors cleverly dig into their characters, probably at least partially based on how the reality of the script echoes their daily lives. Worthy of special mention is Joel Bryant, who stepped in at the last minute to play Noel after Jamie Zwick, who normally plays the role, had an accident. Even with a playbook firmly clutched in his hand, he fit so smoothly into the crew that he seemed to have been one of them forever. At the end of the play, one audience member even asked which role was being covered by the newcomer.
THE $5 SHAKESPEARE COMPANY is an uproarious but also tender study of ten actors looking for a place to call home in the theatrical blizzard that is Los Angeles. By its very nature, audiences will find it uproarious and poignant at the same time. Above all, this is an entertaining production which helps shed some light on why people go into show business in the first place.
THE $5 SHAKESPEARE COMPANY runs through March 8, 2020, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Theatre 68 is located at 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, CA. Tickets are $35. For information and reservations, go online.