For first-time audience members, it is hard to predict just what you’re getting into with Off the Quill’s new staging of Violent Delights: A Shakespearean Brawl-esque Sideshow. An original production created first for the 2013 Capital Fringe Festival by company members Patrick Mullen, Leanne Dinverno, J. Peter Langsdorf, Katie Wanschura, as well as William Shakespeare, and directed by Mullen, the show bills itself as a blend of stage combat, dance, clowning, and movement. Part Circus, part Shakespeare, and part original script, the show attempts to cram as many styles as possible into its one-hour run time. And while at times, it struggled with its own over-ambition, as a whole, Violent Delights is a truly unique and exceedingly creative marriage of circus and classical theater.
The show follows a fairly standard circus format: individual performance acts of vastly different styles, in this case themed around certain Shakespearean plays, interrupted and strung together by ringleaders Temperance (Wanschura), and the Ringmaster (Mullen), a pair of siblings struggling to save their crumbling theater following the death of their third sibling, Joy (Kathleen Moors). Many cast members reprised their roles from the 2013 production, including Mullen, Wanschura, K. Moors, as well as Jacqueline Chenault as The Mother, Dinverno as The Crone, and Brian Moors appearing this time as The Knight. They are joined by new cast members Chelsie Lloyd as The Maid, Terran Garrettson as The Lance, and Patrick Miller as The Patriarch. Costumes, designed by Wanschura, are simple and laid out on the stage from the start, as though in a rehearsal. The primary colors of the simple set, designed by Mullen, are complemented by intense lighting, also Mullen, that foreshadow the violence to come.
The show opens with an elaborate, wordless acrobatic number. The impressive grace and physicality of the cast as a whole becomes immediately apparent, and it is indeed those skills in movement that carry this show. Each act brings its own style of performance – swing dance, clowning, a Japanese kendo fight scene – and the actors move seamlessly from one style to the next. K. Moors’s eye for Choreography shines through intricate, company-wide dance numbers that had our audience bouncing in their seats. In turn, Mullen’s vast array of Fight Choreography was tense and captivating.
While Violent Delights’ performers were each impressive, there was consistently so much action presented at once that you could not appreciate any one thing. Take, for example, the opening acrobatics. Four pairs of actors performed stunts simultaneously, making it impossible to appreciate any single stunt. Juggling acts lasted less than five seconds before being hurried off for the next act. An impressive but brief moment of sword-swallowing was blocked by other performers and never revisited. Later jugglers were so rushed to move onto the next thing that the result was clumsy and unpolished. Fight scenes, likewise, while showing their skill in choreographing large groups, rarely drew the audience’s focus any one way, relying instead on overwhelming them with chaos.
Contrastingly, the show excelled when it slowed down long enough to focus on an individual performance, such as Wanschura’s breathtaking black-light flag twirling. This was even more true when performers were given a chance to tackle the text. In fact, the solitary moment of monologuing allowed – an intense and riveting combination of B. Moors’s Henry V and Miller’s Falstaff – quite nearly stole the show. This was equally true for Chenault’s Tamora in scenes from Titus Andronicus, as she expertly maneuvered the character’s emotional 180-degree turn from pleading mother to cold killer. Lloyd was dealt a similar challenge, as her scene from Two Gentlemen of Verona plummeted rapidly from pure clowning into a scene of sexual assault and murder, yet she likewise carried the audience through. Dinverno carries a fierce stillness that has you watching her even in scenes for which she has no lines. Garrettson shines as a stage fighter, particularly as a spear-wielding Hotspur. K. Moors’s silent presence as Joy lends the entire production an appropriately unsettling vibe. Stringing along to each act was Mullen’s commanding yet charismatic Ringmaster, who glides seamlessly from original text to intermingled lines of Shakespearean text, from upbeat entertainer to grieving instigator.
Conversely, the Lighting Design was weak to the point of distracting. Actors were frequently half lit, straight down the middle of their faces. Objects that were held up, clearly for the audience to see, were in complete darkness, and juggling tricks attempted in black-light darkness were too quick and dim to have any effect. Like the pace of the show, it made it occasionally challenging to fully appreciate the performances. Likewise, the Sound Design (Mullen) did a spectacular job of setting the mood in pre-show, but was heavy-handed and jarring, to no useful effect, throughout the performances, with blaring songs cutting out abruptly a few beats after the action or drowning out actors’ lines.
The performers of Violent Delights infuse the works and ideas of Shakespeare with a passion, enthusiasm, and creativity that is delightful to behold. In its vaulting ambition to present every possible style and performance at once, it occasionally misses its own mark. Yet in crafting this production, the cast, crew, and creators of Violent Delights show a uniquely thoughtful eye toward Shakespeare’s texts that comes to life through impressively skillful and entertaining physicality. Unlike anything you will have seen before, the show is well-worth its current reprisal.
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes with no intermission
Violent Delights: A Shakespearean Brawl-Esque Sideshow plays through May 5, 2018 at Joe’s Movement Emporium – 3309 Bunker Hill Road, Mt. Rainier, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance online here.