I recently had the chance to go to the Getty Villa, an adjunct to the Getty Museum that houses religious and cultural artifacts from the ancient Mediterranean world. We saw a beautiful Aphrodite exhibit and the permanent collection contained displays dedicated to gods, heroes, worship, and history.
One of the best exhibits was dedicated to Dionysus and theater. Hundreds of statues, jars, and wine bowls featured depictions of actors playing the roles of deities and heroes. There was an undeniable humor to these pieces as they presented paunchy old men in fake beards and sometimes cross-dressed, re-enacting the Judgment of Paris, the Labors of Hercules, and other famous scenes of Greek and Roman mythology. Of course I already knew that theater was a vital part of the ancient Greece, but the humor in many of those pieces reminded me the importance of one aspect of theater that often gets overlooked: parody.
Parody allows us to laugh. It even allows us to laugh at things that are often considered sacred. Actors parodied their gods, making fun of their mythology in a way that made them more human and more accessible to the common audience than shining, unblemished representations would have been. That tradition has followed us to this day. Like many ancient bards, we use parody to knock our political leaders, celebrities, and athletes off of their pedestal. Have you seen this clip of Jimmy Fallon using David Bowie to bring the high-flying Tim Tebow down to earth as “Tebowie”?
Parodies often are about that which we respect most. Whatever is popular, respected, or even sacred is ripe for a good caricature. How many “sacred cows” have been satirized by Monty Python or Saturday Night Live? And in the world of art and literature, there are few people more heavily respected than William Shakespeare. Naturally, Shakespeare’s work is screaming out for a good parody, and that’s just what you get with The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (abridged), now playing at Mysterium Theater.
Gods, but this show is hilarious! An amazing cast (the night I saw it, the cast was Amy Newman, Mariann Papadopoulos, and Kathleen Switzer) brings incredible energy and dynamism to the evening. Their mission: perform everything ever written by The Bard in an hour and a half while keeping the audience interested, engaged, and rolling with laughter. Mission accomplished.
Naturally, the performance centers on Shakespeare’s most well know plays. Significantly more time is spent on Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet than, say, Cymbeline. Sometimes entire classes of plays are combined into one. This is what happens with all of Shakespeare’s comedies since, really, mistaken identity is not a very versatile plot device. Neither is battling for power, so the histories are all presented as one bi football game. When you get right down to it, those two ideas really do drive a good 2/3 of Shakespeare’s plays. Talk about knocking greatness down a few pegs!
What’s left are the tragedies, which – ironically – are incredibly funny. There is such creativity in this script, and it is brought to life with obvious love and devotion to the original material. The very talented cast presents the tragedies in a dizzying whirlwind that churns with palpable charisma and excellent comic timing. And despite all this humor at The Bard’s expense, it is always clear that this is a tribute to man who wrote some of the greatest plays in history, “despite the ravages of male pattern baldness.”
But that’s the point. A good parody is, in the end, a tribute. Sure, it sloughs off the immortal coil of an almost godlike figure, but making his work accessible actually serves to endear him more to audiences, thus continuing his legacy. Yes, Shakespeare was just a man, but he was a man who produced these incredible works of art, so seeing him as a regular person only serves to elevate him in the eyes of the audience. We may be having a good time, but we’re also learning to admire a truly great author. The Greeks would be proud.