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THE SHAKESPEARE STEALER hath charms for 8 to 80.

THE BASICS: THE SHAKESPEARE STEALER, a play by Gary L. Blackwood based on his YA novel, presented by Theatre of Youth, directed by Chris Kelly, stars Jordan Louis Fischer, Shabar Rouse, Jordan Levin, Jesse Tiebor, Bobby Cooke, Nick Stevens, Dan Torres, Renee Landrigan, and Lisa Vitrano.  In addition to many bused-in school performances, it runs for the public through February 12, Saturdays and Sundays at 2, plus Saturday, February 11th at 10:00 a.m. at the Allendale Theatre, 203 Allen St. (884.4400). Suitable for 8+, runtime about 2 hours with one intermission. No snacks, but copies of the book are available from a Talking Leaves representative in the lobby. www.theatreofyouth.org

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Widge, an orphan apprenticed (think “enslaved”) to Dr. Bright, has learned the Bright’s technique of “speed writing” (shorthand) which leads the conniving Bass to think that Widge, if he hid above a stage with a pencil and a pocket sized notebook, could be used to “steal” the play HAMLET from William Shakespeare. To this end Bass sends the scary Falconer to buy Widge from Dr. Bright and ultimately accompany the boy to London where the theft of intellectual property (as we say nowadays) can occur. What occurs first, however, is that Widge is befriended by Shakespeare’s troupe (the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) and for the first time in his life is treated not as “less than human” but as a valued person, a friend, and part of the acting family. He enjoys his newfound humanity, begins to see how his actions can hurt others, and now has a moral dilemma on his hands.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: This production has the best sword play (Fight Choreography by Steve Vaughan) that I have seen in years, and I’m talking about Shakespeare in Delaware Park and The Stratford (Shakespeare) Festival. One reason it was so good is that the swordsmanship is presented in three different ways or three different levels. We see the acting troupe teaching Widge how to use a sword and then practicing. Next we see one of the veteran “players” (Jordan Levin in the role of Robert Armin) increase the intensity in a not-too-threatening situation as he disciplines one of the wayward young actors. But then, as the play continues, the characters now must fight “for real” with the swords and doggone it was convincing. If you have children (probably boys) who are “too cool for school” and might not want to go to sit in a theater and watch a play, this is the play to see.

Ken Shaw’s set was also stunning with wooden beams representing Shakespeare’s Globe theater and with some clever lighting by Todd Proffitt along with a few drops it quickly changed for different scenes (including a “behind the curtain looking out at the audience” POV that was very effective). Okay, maybe it wasn’t as marvelous as Stratford’s Festival Theatre stage, but certainly as good as I’ve seen anywhere else. I must say, Theatre of Youth set designs are cost-effective, but never “dumbed down.”

The direction by Chris Kelly was clear, the entire stage was used to good effect, everyone stayed in character, and, perhaps my highest compliment, offered characterizations that were believable to adults while still being “family friendly.” This is not a “kiddie show.” Not at all.

This is not a “kiddie show.” Not at all.

Ever since I saw Jordan Louis Fischer as Viola in Shakespeare’s TWELFTH NIGHT, where he, a man, plays a woman pretending to be a man, I always look forward to his performances. His face and body are loose and expressive. He’s a very physically pliable actor and plays the young Widge well.

Shabar Rouse plays two roles and with his big voice is just scary enough as the first mean adult in Widge’s life, but Rouse doesn’t overshadow Nick Stevens, who usually plays quiet introspective guys, but when he becomes “Falconer” and uses “the voice,” wow. After every show the entire cast sits down on the stage lip and answers any and all questions, as Artistic Director Meg Quinn plays MC. When asked how he developed “the voice” Stevens said it took a long time. He began by simply growling, then slowly making the growl more understandable, until he had it.

Jordan Levin, like Fischer, is a physically pliable actor and as the best swordsman on stage he has authority but also likeability. I can certainly see young audience members, boys and girls, wanting to be his friend. He’s cool, but approachable, and as a veteran at TOY has a good rapport with the younger crowd.

Jesse Tiebor has a tough role playing Nick Tooley, a young man whose voice is changing as his body grows into manhood. He’s about to “age out” of being able to play women’s roles (in Shakespeare’s day women were not allowed on stages and all their roles were covered by men) so he is scared about his future. Like many of us, Tooley doesn’t handle change well. Like Widge, Tooley is on a voyage of self-discovery and Tiebor handles the role ably.

Bobby Cooke could probably have played any of the characters, but in this production is Shakespeare himself and he provides the gravitas required to keep the play grounded.  Dan Torres plays a young member of the troupe named Sander Cooke and being the closest in age to Widge, provides the “buddy” role which is a literary requirement in any action adventure.

The two women in the show are Buffalo favorites, yet do not have large roles. Still, Renee Landrigan and Lisa Vitrano are pros, and when they are on stage do their usual excellent job.

By all means, don’t miss this one.

TOY offers what they call a “Sensory Friendly Performance” of THE SHAKESPEARE STEALER  this Sunday, February 5, at 10AM. These performances are designed to offer a safe, respectful, inclusive environment for children who may need any special accommodation or more parental attention during the show.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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