The United Kingdom-based physical comedy troupe Spymonkey’s members include Toby Park, Petra Massey, Aitor Basauri and Stephan Kreiss, all of whom play fictionalized, exaggerated versions of their own “real” identities in The Complete Deaths, which ran recently at the theater Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare. The premise of the show is as follows: an ensemble troupe is performing an evening of avant-garde, serious, “anti-capitalist” Shakespeare in which all the onstage deaths in the canon are to be presented, each death commemorated on a neon sign counting down to “76.” This is “art” and, as the ostensible leader of the troupe, Toby, proclaims—real art is meant to be challenging: “the first death is of the audience’s complacency.” There are in fact only seventy-four onstage deaths in Shakespeare’s plays; if the first “death” is of the audience’s horizon of expectation, the final death is of the “black ill-favored fly” from Titus Andronicus. This fly, in turn, poses something of a recurring gag throughout in that a fly-camera is also stuck at the end of a recording stick that occasionally travels up actors’ noses and into their mouths, the resulting visions projected onto a screen at the back of the stage.
Part of the ongoing conceit of the piece is our glimpse into the complex group dynamics of the company as the performers occasionally rebel (and eventually briefly revolt) against Toby’s artistic vision: leading lady Petra’s insistence on playing Ophelia, even if that death technically happens offstage; German clown Stephan’s penchant for pulling focus with his physical comedy; Spanish clown Aitor’s ambition to become a “serious” Shakespearean actor, in part encouraged by his occasional solo communions with Shakespeare, represented as a giant face projected on a screen who coaches Aitor from the great beyond on how best to act (“point your fingers a lot”). The show was written by Tim Crouch, whom Chicago audiences might recall from his one-man show I, Malvolio (indeed, many of Toby’s direct addresses to the audience seemed to echo, if only tonally, moments from I, Malvolio).
Unfolding at a rapid pace, then, are a series of dazzling set-pieces—some pure slapstick, others incorporating recorded and live music and dance, still others performed via puppets and/or screen projections, all involving innovative costuming—brilliantly realized by these four seasoned performers with extensive training in physical theater, including especially clowning. The show moves from the lesser-known deaths toward the more notable ones—Romeo, Juliet, Hamlet—which conclude the show. It should also be clear that prop blood flows in abundance, especially within a blood-wrestling scene between a dueling Aitor and Stephan that precedes the intermission.
Notable stand outs for me included the musical song and dance number performed in chef hats and aprons for Titus Andronicus, this tableau also including a kazoo for Lavinia’s tongue and a prop meat grinder into which bodies are fed, sausage links emerging from the other side. The death of Richard III was set to blaring club music, the performers wearing gas masks and black latex bondage gear right out of a Berlin sex club. In a shift into puppetry, the company manipulated unnerving marionette stick-figures for the death of the poet Cinna at the hands of an angry mob in Julius Caesar (this death scene was also projected live onto a video screen). Time and time again innovative costuming helped contribute to the overall success of each scene, perhaps most memorably in the death of Cleopatra: upon intoning her “I am fire and air” speech Cleopatra whips off her dress to reveal asps dangling from each nipple of her prop breasts—and then whips up her skirt to reveal even more adders dangling from between her legs (the show was advertised for mature audiences). To be sure, the designer Lucy Bradridge deserves all praise for her efforts.
I found myself most taken, however, with the death scenes that incorporated some note of seriousness. For example, the slaughter of the Macduffs was initially performed within a riveting modern dance sequence that was both theatrically vibrant and poignant in spite of the contrast between the precision of the movements and the silly Scottish “drag” of the dancers: bare chests, yellow kilts, and Petra done up in a red beard and red chest hair.
As his colleagues push back harder and harder against his “serious” vision (Aitor deciding that bubbles are of the utmost importance), Toby eventually quits in despair—his cue to perform the death of Enobarbus, the only character in Shakespeare who dies of a broken heart and another stand-out moment for me. In Toby’s absence artistic hell breaks temporarily breaks loose—Aitor and Stephan run amok in elaborately absurd clown costumes, bubbles are blown, Petra rolls in as Ophelia within a giant plastic sphere—but the cast reconcile, reaffirm Toby’s vision, and the play concludes with last act of Hamlet—followed by, of course, the final (and protracted) death throes of the fly, as seen on the video screen.
The show as a whole ought to convince American audiences who might associate clowning with all things Bozo of the rigor and seriousness of professional “clown” training: each member of the company was an extraordinary physical performer, dancer, acrobat, and musician. If within the fiction of The Complete Deaths Petra was hell-bent on playing Ophelia, my wish would be for this company to devise a similarly acrobatic, physically challenging, irreverent and Grand-Guignolesque production of Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, the black camp tone of that play matching the aesthetics evident throughout this production.
Andrea Stevens is an associate professor of English, theatre and medieval studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she specializes in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Virginia, an MA in literature from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a BA (Honors) in English from Huron University College in London, Ontario.