Once upon a time in England, I went looking for Shakespeare.
Not a Shakespearean comedy. Not a Shakespearean drama. Not a performance of any kind.
What I wanted to find was Shakespeare himself. Was there a way to discover the personality and connect with the man behind the legendary poet and playwright?
The idea hatched in London while the wife and I were touring along the river Thames. Suddenly, the newly reconstructed Globe Theater came into view on the riverside. The original Globe was Shakespeare’s center as he made his name in acting, writing, coaching players, entertaining audiences and becoming a business partner in the popular theater.
The hunt continued a hundred miles to the north in Stratford, where we visited the Bard’s childhood home, his village schoolhouse (marking the extent of his formal education) and the home of girlfriend (later wife) Anne Hathaway.
Shakespeare left his small provincial town to seek his fortune in London. There, he studied the craft of acting and began writing, making a name and a rising reputation with both the common folk and aristocracy.
Instead of remaining in London, as one might expect him to do, Shakespeare retired at the height of his fame to Stratford to lead a country life. He lived in a fine house, prospered in ventures from properties to moneylending, and was apparently well regarded by his fellow townsfolk who erected a bust of him in the village church. His 1616 death notice in the church register summed him up in one word— “Gent”. The abbreviation of gentleman signified his social standing and material success.
I went on to pay my respects at his tomb, where an inscription warned that a curse would befall “he who moves my bones.” The bones are not entirely unmoved. A 2016 radar scan of his resting place suggested that an ardent admirer or lowly grave robber may have made off with William’s head.
Although his Stratford house was torn down several centuries ago, the pleasant garden of the Shakespeare property continues to host appreciative tourists. I sat there, trying to imagine Will’s post-London retirement, aiding my imagination with a glass of dandelion wine that my tour guide assured me was a favorite with Master Will. I drank one toast to his good taste and a second to his legacy. That was as close as I got.
On the other hand, I’ve never felt closer to Shakespeare and his world than a Sunday matinee at the Stockton Civic Theatre where a production of “Something Rotten” brought the colorful London theater scene of 1595 to life with a spirit and style that Shakespeare himself might well have applauded.
The highlight of the show was a visit from—ready or not, here comes the plot disclosure—Shakespeare himself, with Jeffrey Jackson impersonating the Bard and giving him a modern tweak as an obnoxious rock star.
Although best known for tragedies such as “Othello,” “Macbeth” and “Hamlet,” which many of us read and some of us performed in high school or college (or both), Shakespeare also had a career in comedy. He may even have preferred the lighter mode to drama, given his advice to “Frame your mind to mirth and merriment, which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life.”
Mirth and merriment were abundant in the Stockton production, thanks to director Dennis Beasley’s classy and sassy rendering of the hit play. It came complete with a lively cast whose singing, dancing and acting brought the world of Shakespeare to life. The matinee audience gave enthusiastic responses to the time trip. It was apparent that this rendering of Shakespeare and company had what it took to seize the imagination and tickle the funny bone of appreciative theatergoers.
“The songs were very funny and the performance unique, unlike any musical that I’ve seen,” said Zoe Harrel, a performer in her own right as an apprentice with the Carolina Ballet.
Like many SCT patrons, visiting Oregon college student Brandon Roth found “Something Rotten” to be something wonderful.
“I enjoyed the parody of Shakespeare as a super rock star of 1595,” Roth said, praising the comedic plot that focused on the plight of brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom—two wannabes trying to make a name for themselves in the London theater world by writing history’s first musical. One brother had confidence without talent, Roth noted; the other had talent but lacked confidence. Both found themselves at the mercy of an idea-grabbing Shakespeare whose talent turned whatever he touched into box office gold.
“Shakespeare knew the brothers’ weaknesses and took what he wanted from them,” Roth said of the formidable competitor who left the aspiring brothers empty-handed.
A collaboration of the brothers might have solved the problem, theatergoers said, but they were divided against each other and up against the showstopping star of the day.
“No matter what Shakespeare said or did, the crowd would go crazy,” said Los Angeles visitor Tiffany Roth. That was exactly what the SCT crowd did as Shakespeare once again stole the show.
“I loved the play and was surprised by all the talent—from acting and singing skills to costumes and set design,” said local schoolteacher Kim Yanez. “It was very well cast and the leads had amazing voices. To imagine Shakespeare as a fun character made you think about how it was back then and how very popular he was in his own time.”
The magic continues to this day, and a clever spoof like “Something Rotten” will only enhance it, theatergoers said.
“It’s the third time I’ve seen it, after New York and Tucson, and I’ve loved it every time I saw it,” said Stockton legal office manager Courtney Harrel. “It’s always fun to see it because there’s so much going on—from the Shakespeare period to our own current humor. The Stockton performance was on the spot.”
Some of the twists and turns of “Something Rotten” came as a complete surprise–and unexpected delight—to newcomers.
“I had no idea what to expect and assumed it was something Monty Pythonesque,” said Stockton tax preparer Tricia Martucci. “It was easy to pick up the cadence and verbiage, and I felt the actors and actresses were having a really good time. Everyone was happy to be back on stage and giving it their all. We all felt really positive being back at the theater (after its 17-month closure due to the pandemic), sitting in the dark and laughing with others. There’s something very communal and bonding about being in the theater. It was a perfect musical to start life again—and it was marvelous to be back!”
Personally, I felt confident the Bard would be delighted by the wit of the comedy and flattered by the honor of a starring role despite his characterization as a preening teen idol whose fame had gone to his head. If his actual head can someday be found and restored to its rightful owner in that Stratford resting place, the unification might be the inspiration for a new musical comedy entitled “Uneasy Lies the Head.”
As for seeing the show a second time, I’m tempted to return to hear such delights as Sierra Fraser’s Portia declare her love for poets and the disgruntled Nick and Nigel Bottom (Martin Lehman and Kyle Beal) sing one more chorus of “God, I Hate Shakespeare!”
And no encore would be complete without Jackson’s self-celebrating Shakespeare leading the cheers of his entourage with “Will Power” and “Hard to be the Bard.”
“So how was it?” a friend asked when he learned of my remarkable theater experience.
“Like Shakespeare himself opened the door and said welcome to the Renaissance,” I replied.
The answer I’d hoped to find in England was given to me on the stage of the Stockton Civic Theatre.
A retired reporter and editor, Stockton resident Howard Lachtman has written Delta-centered detective stories, Stockton Civic Theatre reviews and a variety of baseball tales for Soundings. In 2006. he was honored by the Stockton Arts Commission for “24 years of superior review and commentary on the performing and literary arts in Stockton.”