Have you been hankering to see a “Hamlet”/“Dune” mash-up? Would you rather ponder — and maybe gripe about — the assumptions that encourage high-concept Shakespeare makeovers? If the answer to either of these questions is yes — or if you’ve given any significant thought to the challenge of staging Shakespeare today — you’ll get a big kick out of “Fear,” Kathleen Akerley’s brainy, funny and somewhat overstuffed new play, now being staged by Longacre Lea.
Not only do the play’s theater-wonk characters want to ponder the overlap between Elsinore and Frank Herbert’s sci-fi universe, but they also want to run the Bard through the lens of feminism, Grotowski, graphic novels, insane-asylum imagery and the notion of Fortinbras’s inferiority complex. When they’re not plunging into rehearsals guided by zany auteur-style notions, they’re arguing about the pros and cons of various approaches. Watching this cerebral but divertingly brisk-paced comedy is a little like watching “Slings & Arrows,” if all the characters in that late, lamented TV series had dramaturgy degrees from Yale.
Directed by Akerley, and featuring mostly creditable performances, “Fear” depicts a small theater troupe in the throes of an audacious project. After an enthusiastic donor named Penelope (a fine Amal Saade) volunteers to underwrite the entire process, the scrappy company, 38th Pie, decides to take on Shakespeare for the first time. Rather than spearheading a traditional production, artistic director Timothy (Seamus Miller) and managing director JT (Ashley DeMain) ask their colleagues to come up with exciting staging conceits; the company then tries applying each suggestion to a scene from either “Hamlet” or “Macbeth.”
Among other experiments, the high-strung Aidan (Matthew Alan Ward) translates “Hamlet” into profane contemporary language, and a famous actor named Van (Michael Glenn) hits on the “Dune” parallel. During and between rehearsals, everyone bickers about premises, corollaries and the culture’s attitude toward Shakespeare. The playwright is like capitalism, Timothy theorizes after a rehearsal has devolved into a Grotowski-informed sobbing session. “It’s this huge de facto preexisting reality that you have to fight or accept. . . . You are inherently victimized by its existence, even if you don’t feel bad.”
One longs for a few more humanizing insights into Timothy and his colleagues, who occasionally feel more like hooks for ideas than fully rounded characters. An exception is the harried stage manager, Henry (a winning Tom Carman), who comes up with what may be the kookiest gimmick ever for making “Hamlet” fresh. We get to see how this gimmick, and others, might look in practice in the second act, which (shades of “Noises Off” here) samples 38th Pie’s show in its final, public state. (Gail Stewart Beach designed the costumes, which include Bard-inspired comic-book attire, and Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden devised the minimal but telling set.)
The three-hour “Fear” could use some trims. On the acting front, the mannerisms Miller and Ward have found for Timothy and Aidan sometimes feel strained, and Glenn’s Van is more stylized than the other characters. Still, unabashed theater geeks will forgive the show’s flaws for the sake of the wacky yet insidery jokes, which include sly allusions to several local and national Shakespeare controversies and ventures.
In an apt touch, a swirling hubbub of voices repeatedly accompanies the scene transitions in the backstage-focused first act. It’s as if four centuries of talk about Shakespeare were echoing all at once.
Fear, written and directed by Kathleen Akerley. Lighting, John Burkland; assistant director, Jeanne Dillon-Williams; props, Solomon HaileSelassie; sound, Neil McFadden; fight choreography, Matthew Alan Ward; technical director, Mark J. Wujcik. With Jennifer J. Hopkins and Vince Eisenson. Three hours. Tickets: $15-$20. Through Sept. 4 at Catholic University’s Callan Theatre, 3801 Harewood Rd. NE. Visit longacrelea.org or call 202-460-2188.