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A midsummer night's mash-up

Pear Theatre's pseudo-Shakespearean 'What You Will' is a must-see

Palace intrigue. Mistaken identities. Kidnapping, quarreling lovers and civil unrest in the dukedom. Sound like Shakespeare? Well, it is and it isn't -- at least, not quite as written by the Bard himself.

"What You Will" ("the Shakespeare play that Shakespeare never wrote") makes its world-premiere run at the Pear Theatre through July 16. Playwright Max Gutmann borrowed every word and phrase from Shakespeare's works and rearranged them to create a play that seems as if it very well could have trod the boards at the Rose or the Globe.

Gutmann set himself the Herculean task of creating a brand new play by rearranging only words, words, words from Shakespeare's texts. Constructed like a giant puzzle without a box, "What You Will" is a thoroughly unique piece of theatre with a few of Shakespeare's iconic phrases peppered in as laugh lines.

The prologue warns you not to get too wrapped up in listening for the Bard in this new work. I found it difficult to heed that warning at first, trying to spot the "Lear" or the "Hamlet" in each line, but a few scenes in, I found myself becoming utterly immersed and unbothered that Shakespeare had a hand in this at all.

The plot is simple: a nobleman, Antonio (played by Mark Vashro) returns from a successful diplomatic mission in France with a beautiful French wife (LeighAnn Cannon) who can only speak a few words of English. He is received well by the Duke (Kevin Hammond), a man who prizes honesty above all else, until the scheming Malvolio (Lauren Hayes) and hapless Roderigo (Dan Wilson) turn the Duke against Antonio and turn poor Antonio's world upside down.

Or, perhaps the plot is this: A physician (Alyssa Lupo-Zulueta) comes to court to attend to the Duke, but, when he asks to be returned to the poor peasants in the north, the Duke, through Malvolio, refuses. The peasants, who have no doctor to cure their sick and injured, plan to kidnap the Duke -- only their plot is foiled by a case of mistaken identity.

Or the plot is a tale of love gone awry. The Duchess (Amelia Adams) and the Duke do not love one another, but they're both very jealous. The Duke, a "lecherous monkey," can't seem to keep his hands off of the young women of the court, including Antonio's wife, while the Duchess discovers that she’s got a thing for Antonio. Will they be able to keep their mate out of the garden long enough to rendezvous with their new beloveds?

Okay, maybe the plot isn't so simple. But the playwright has woven this together so well that you won't have too much trouble keeping the storylines straight.

The direction, by William J. Brown III, also has a hand in keeping you grounded in the plot: With just a simple wood floor, a couple of moving platforms, and your imagination, Brown paints entire landscapes. The staging, at times, tends to be less Shakespeare and more "Scooby-Doo," with actors playing multiple characters entering and exiting in pursuit of one another, but with a few simple costume pieces and recognizable character affectations, they become easy to discern.

Even though this play is not Shakespeare, per se, it’s clear that all of the actors have facility with his language. This is no small feat. Their emotions, intentions and characters all shine through the antiquated-seeming text, so you need not be a Shakespeare buff to enjoy the show. It may take a few minutes to tune your ear to the Elizabethan turns of phrase, but after a scene or two, you'll be firmly invested in the characters' plights.

The actors all handle the difficult task of portraying multiple characters convincingly with ease, although the acting was a bit lopsided, with some characters portrayed earnestly, as was Vashro’s Antonio, and others in over-the-top caricatures, like Adam's Duchess. For the realistically portrayed characters, Hayes is a standout as Malvolio, her acting subtle, yet convincing, and Hammond’s Duke is almost uncomfortably realistic, as he chases after the female-presenting characters throughout the play. But it was Jim Johnson, who plays the Duke’s Attendant and the bumbling peasant Claudio, who had the audience in stitches with his completely deadpan delivery and stoic expression.

The entire ensemble is a well-oiled machine, turning the small theatre-in-the-round into a world where comedy, intrigue, and confusion reign and their audience becomes co-conspirator. So, to see or not to see? This fun, funny and complex play is a can’t-miss midsummer night's dream.

And if their shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended:

This production shall but linger here

And it might be on you to brush up your Shakespeare.

Freelance writer Kaila Prins can be emailed at kailaprins@gmail.com.

What: "What You Will"

Where: The Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St, Mountain View

When: Through July 16, Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.

Cost: $28 - 32

Info: Go to The Pear

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