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Sandisfield Players present ‘Shakespeare Unchained,’ a Bard-inspired comedy

“Shakespeare Unchained” is a comedy hosted by a slightly demented college professor lecturing his students on the world’s greatest playwright.

Sandisfield — Last winter, Jesse Howard was called upon to stage a sword fight. The request came from Ben Luxon — who was leading a production of “Jack and the Giant Beanstalk” at the Sandisfield Arts Center in which Howard’s two children were acting — and culminated, as Howard roughly recalled, in an open-ended suggestion from Luxon that “you and I ought to do something sometime.” As luck and happenstance would have it, the pair will share two stages this weekend when the Sandisfield Players present “Shakespeare Unchained: An Evening of Comedy with the Bard” by Steve Otfinoski in performances at both the Sandisfield Arts Center and Great Barrington’s Saint James Place.

“Ben is such a dynamo,” said Howard of Luxon in a recent interview. “Working with him has been a great opportunity, one I couldn’t resist,” added Howard who has been the theater director at Berkshire School in Sheffield for nearly a decade. Howard is somewhat of a theater aficionado, having embarked on an ambitious two to four plays a year during his 20s and 30s. This collaboration with Luxon and Otfinoski, whose work Howard directed in a staged reading at Berkshire Playwrights Lab’s Radius Playwrights Festival in its inaugural season, seemed an opportune moment to dust off the proverbial cobwebs and return to center stage. “This seemed like the right moment,” said Howard, who was drawn to what he calls the “approachable size” of Otfinoski’s send-offs of Shakespeare. “They are very clever, very funny, at times a little Monty Python-esque,” said Howard of the skits that revolve around moments from Shakespeare that are twisted for comic purposes.

Steve Otfinoski. Photo courtesy Capstone Publishing

Written by Steve Otfinoski and co-directed by Benjamin Luxon and Jesse Howard, “Shakespeare Unchained” is an evening of Bard-inspired comedy hosted by a slightly demented college professor lecturing his students on the world’s greatest playwright. Among the five playlets are two parodies of “Richard III” and “Macbeth.” In “A Horse! A Horse!”, Richard’s cry for help on Bosworth Field is answered by a helpful seller of “new and pre-owned horses.” In the “Macbeth” piece the Scottish king connives with two murderers to kill his rival Banquo, only to meet with some unexpected resistance from one of them. “The whole show is a gas — one not to be taken too seriously,” remarked Howard for any in the audience still reeling from high school encounters with the Bard. “Shakespeare gets pretty beat up,” he added.

The Sandisfield Arts Center

“There is joy for the actor and director in me because each piece holds a ‘What if…’ question,” remarked Luxon. “For example, what if the murderers Macbeth enlists to kill Banquo are a pair of incompetents? What if, in answer to the plea, ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!’, some fellow turned up on Bosworth Field and tried to sell or rent Richard a horse? All of this is acted out in a rather Monty Pythonish way,” he added. Four of these comedies have been previously performed in various venues in Connecticut, including the grounds of the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre and Two Roads Brewery. “It’s a Tragedy” was produced in 2017 at the first Radius Playwrights Festival at Saint James Place in Great Barrington by the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, of which Otfinoski is a member. His full-length “Mortal Friends,” about the remarkable friendship of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, received a staged reading last year at Ventfort Hall in Lenox. Luxon added, “What a gift playwright Steve Otfinoski has given us as players and audience with his ingenious, witty and often sly humor.”

For Howard, who has spent the past 10 years having to fill in for various actors in one capacity or another, this has been an exercise in owning a role for himself — or, more accurately, multiple roles across five skits. One such role Howard assumes is that of Bill Zaney — a Hollywood-esque producer with dreams of turning Shakespeare’s plays into blockbusters — and he meets Luxon, similarly playing various roles — including William Shakespeare — while Otfinoski is the professor who knits the seemingly disparate pieces together. “It’s been really, really fun and I look forward to sharing it,” said Howard of the show that runs just about an hour in length. “It’s been a really cool collaboration,” he added in a nod to the whole Sandisfield Arts Center crew, “and I’m guessing it won’t be the last!”

Two performances will unfold this weekend. The first, at the Sandisfield Arts Center, will take place Saturday, Sept. 22 at 8 p.m. A repeat matinee performance will take place at Saint James Place in Great Barrington Sunday, Sept. 23, at 3 p.m. Tickets for both events are $20.

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