In March of 2020, The Phoenix Theatre Company’s production of “Something Rotten” closed after just one rehearsal. That’s right: not one performance, but one rehearsal. The show never opened. At that same time, we were working on a series of reviews in Albuquerque (ref: Pilobolus at Popejoy Hall, et al.) and were fearful that the whole state of New Mexico would close down before we could complete our assignment and return to Phoenix. But back to “Something Rotten”…
Michael Barnard is Phoenix Theatre’s Artistic Director. Appearing live in front of a sold-out house, he stoically admits, “COVID-19 shut us down.” He nods in assent to the moans and groans of members of the audience. “We were confident that we would be able to resume our productions in May…” Barnard pauses for dramatic effect and the expected titters and eye rolls. “And here we are…in May…of 2022!” The crowd roars. He adds, “…after two years and two months of rehearsals.” More laughter. There could be no better warm-up act than Michael Barnard’s intro monologue.
The 2021-2022 season of The Phoenix Theatre Company actually resumed several months previous, with outdoor performances in an adjacent churchyard. As shows moved indoors, COVID protocols went into full effect, with patrons wearing face masks and getting their temperatures taken at the gate. All precautions met the most stringent Actors’ Equity and CDC guidelines. The Phoenix Theatre Company did it right. That “Something Rotten” just happened to be scheduled exactly two years after its predicted re-opening may be more than an amusing coincidence. But on with the show.
“Something Rotten” tells the tale of two down-on-their-heels brothers, living in 16th-century London. By trade, they are struggling actors and playwrights in search of a rich patron to finance their next staged production. And therein lies the crux of their problems. Their chief competitor in that realm is none other than the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare (played by Toby Yatso). One brother, Nigel (Matravius Avent), holds the legend in adulation, as evidenced by the flowery and romantic prose he pens. The other brother, Nick (Jonathan Shew), detests Shakespeare and loathes the pompous and grandiose style of his many convoluted but popular plays.
Nick will do anything to best Will Shakespeare, even heeding the dubious advice of Medieval soothsayer, Thomas Nostradamas (Kathy Fitzgerald). The resulting scheme is ridiculously funny, absurdly illogical, and frighteningly wicked. The “something rotten” of this story lies in the conflict between Nick Bottoms and Will Shakespeare, both of whom are equal parts desperate and devious. Neither will acknowledge his own hopeless narcissism during this spell of mutual writer’s block. Meanwhile, brother Nigel falls in love, becoming one half of a pair of starcrossed lovers. His romantic interest is a severely puritanical minister’s beautiful and conflicted daughter, Portia (Sarah Julia Ambrose). If all of this sounds very…well, Shakespearean, it is no coincidence.
“Something Rotten” is a bawdy, farcical romp in the guise of a traditional tragicomedy. The Middle Ages are waning and the English Renaissance is in full swing. But in this version of history, more thought is put into the cut of one’s codpiece than into intellectual and artistic rebirth. While the language is modern, avid fans of Shakespeare will appreciate the overt references to several of his most famous plays. Picture a local Jewish moneylender, excited at the thought of the Bard writing a character just for him. Finally, a story about a nice Jew, gushes an unsuspecting Shylock (played by the versatile Tony Blosser). This sort of wink to lovers of the classics plays well to this sophisticated audience of well-read theater-goers. Men playing women, women disguised as men, foul play from every direction, and unrealized ambition all have their place in this parody/homage. If “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” took place in 1599, it would be this.
Much of our enjoyment of this production owes to show stopping musical dance numbers that rip into the very nature of the genre. We conspire with the cast in making fun of musical comedies while acknowledging our deep affection for them. What? In the middle of a dialog you break into song? Nick Bottoms ponders this absurdity, only to complete his thought in a mellifluous baritone while ensemble dancers twirl and sway around him. They dance and sing their way through thinly-disguised snippets of a dozen or more Broadway plays, including Les Miserable, A Chorus Line, Annie, Into The Woods, The Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, and Cats. There are, in fact, way too many references squeezed into the spaces of a single number, for you to keep track of or to even notice. For this reason alone, “Something Rotten” is one of those shows that you’ll want to see several times, just so you can catch all of the gags you missed.
After two years and two months, “Something Rotten” was definitely worth the wait!