The Playaround Shakespeare Company's "A Pac-of-Clowns" is a cool, commercial calculation for a troupe whose avowed purpose is to bring Shakespeare to younger theater goers reared on the rube tube and, more recently, the video arcade. The danger and unfortunate drawback of this second offering of medicinal theater at the Smithsonian's Discovery Theatre is that it makes as strong a case for the maintenance of the arcade mentality as it does for exploring the Bard's work.
The idea, a spinoff of last year's zesty "Play Around Shakespeare," is to use some of Shakespeare's best known clowns and fools--Touchstone, Falstaff, Bottom--as a conduit to the deeper, sometimes darker themes in his plays. (Touchstone acts as a compelling bridge between mannered courtly wit and village street smarts, while Falstaff's rallying an army of clowns is seen as a lesson in leadership and strategy.) Unfortunately, it plays more like freeze-dried sitcom than flesh-and-blood tragicomedy, which denies the essential nature of the source material.
The format can best be described as scenes within a play within a play (the later two components being taken from "A Midsummer Night's Dream"). Through a time warp every bit as believable as television's "Voyagers," Bottom inadvertently becomes Pac-Bottom, the center of energy around whom swirl snatches of video games (mostly Pac-Man) along with bits of "Henry IV," "As You Like It" and "The Merchant of Venice." When Flute, Snout, Snug and Quince become Pac-Man gremlins Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Sue, the generation gulch has never seemed so deep.
There are, happily, enough broad strokes to satisfy even the most complacent imaginations: the slapstick burlesque of that "most lamentable comedy and the most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby," where those poor Elizabethan blue-collar Bunkers go slightly bonkers in their head-on encounter with Art. There are the jovial Falstaff's wit-laden encounters with the somewhat reluctant Mouldy, Wart, Feeble and Bullcalf from "Henry IV." But most adolescents, no doubt already numbed by this play's dearth of non-verbal action, are likely to miss the heady wordplay, as well as the serious underlying themes addressed by Shakespeare.
When Bottom becomes Pac-Bottom, he starts slipping into pseudo-tech talk. A musty script acts as a "power pill" while the players move along Pac-like tracks, the result of a clever lighting scheme. One supposes this is to keep the naives from getting restless. At the same time, the script starts sounding videotic:
"It's a video cassette cartridge that fits into your VCR unit" is followed by "Does it hurt much?" More typically, a mention of "Asteroids" elicits the response: "Watch your language!"
You feel like you're tuned in somewhere between Channel 20 and Channel 26.
As the show becomes accessible, it falls away from its inspiration's complicated heart. And the choice of scenes is not inspiring; in fact, the five-person cast seems unable to generate the proper energy from such small chunks, which is too bad since it is uniformly well cast, particularly Hank Jackelen in the central Bottom/Pac-Bottom role. Outside of the "Pyramus and Thisby" bit, the scenes play lugubriously. Using a weak "recognition" scene between Launcelot Gobbo and Old Gobbo from "The Merchant of Venice" as a "family entertainment" corollary to the arcade experience is not going to encourage much enthusiasm for the theater experience. Since the show's opening, director David Cromwell has reportedly made several changes in the script, which should tighten things up. Last year's offering from Playaround Shakespeare managed to blend energy, enlightenment and accessibility; this time around, the going is a bit rougher.
"A Pac-of-Clowns" will be performed at Discovery Theatre, Arts and Industries Building, through Jan. 30; Wednesday through Friday at 10 and 11:30 a.m., Saturday and Sunday at 1 and 3 p.m. For information, call 357-2700.