Photo by Joe Mazza Brave Lux
Malapert /ˈmaləpərt/ ARCHAIC: adjective… “boldly disrespectful to a person of higher standing”; noun… “an impudent person”
Reflections of the above definitions abound in Siah Berlatsky’s Malapert Love, the world premiere of which is now being presented by The Artistic Home. The play, sharply and wittily directed by Julian Hester, uses that theme to make fun of the tropes, twists, and turns of William Shakespeare’s comedies. There are no twins and no one crossdresses, but I think Berlatski manages to cover most of the rest of them with the kind of humor and expert dissection that can only be the work of someone who knows those plays well and understands them fully. That playwright Berlatsky was still in high school when she began to write this hilarious send-up of the Bard makes it all the more amazing (and makes me wish I could call out her English teachers for congratulations). This play is nothing less than the most articulate and utterly hilarious original production I have seen since the pandemic ended.
The plot and characters are contrivances intended both to pay homage to Shakespeare’s comedies and to show how preposterous they are a lot of the time. Of course, this play is about love. A song interlude at one point tells us: “Yes, love is love, Though malapert, Love is love, Though it may hurt, Love is love, Love cares not if it’s misplaced, Love has no right and proper place, for Love is love!” (And this play, set in what is apparently a much better world than ours, does not distinguish in any way between hetero and gay love. Would that we could claim the same!)
It opens in an unnamed city (and a time that conflates the 16th and 21st Centuries), where an inept, weak, and despondent Count Montoya (Grant Carriker at his endearingly maudlin best) pines in his room because he cannot win the heart of his true love, a woman named Lady Gabriella (Karla Corona, who struts across the stage and, despite her small size, takes command of it). His fool—and household chief of staff—Molyneux (Ernest Henton playing a cross between supplicant and manipulator) talks him into wooing her with a sonnet, but his effort is absolutely rotten. (“Oh beauty, darling, beauty most most dear, My love hath tangled in your twirling hair Much like the curving antlers of a deer Entwined in jungle vines or in a bear…”) Montoya is overly fond of ridiculous metaphors.
Molyneux talks him into allowing a young staff member named Skip (a highly energetic Declan Collins giving one of the best performances in a show full of them)—who is deeply in love with his boss—to help to compose the sonnet, and Montoya falls suddenly for the young man. Thus begins a very Shakespearean festival of hidden identities and truths—with a bit of Cyrano de Bergerac thrown in for good measure—that intertwine intricately and create luscious confusion. Pretty much everyone here is hiding a love for someone else…or else professing a love for someone we know is the wrong person.
Other characters include Esperanza (Emilie Rose Danno, defying her own small size as she plays a manipulative foil to Molineux’s manipulative fool), a staff member in Montoya’s house who secretly loves Molineux, Lorca (a pumped up and very funny Jenna Steege Ramey), “the greatest fighter in the land,” who is secretly in love with her best friend Gabriella (for whom Montoya and later Molyneux have already declared their love), and an old drunk—to be accurate, he doesn’t drink the bizarre combination of urine and paint thinner he carries around; he huffs it—named, in perfectly Shakespearean style, Phischbreath (Frank Nall), who has perfected a bizarre sword-fighting technique. There are also two mostly silent actors (Xela Rosas and Luke Steadman) who portray servants in Montoya’s house, street bandits, and musicians. (Hester, inventive throughout, is at his best as he works with these two.)
Eventually, all of these characters come together in a completely absurd and convoluted set of interwoven conflicts that culminates in the single best comical stage sword fight I think I’ve ever seen. No fewer than six swords are simultaneously in play, and fight choreographer David Blixt manages to keep them all occupied, sometimes three or four (or more) against one, as mayhem breaks out all over the stage. For a comic fight, it feels wonderfully realistic and well-paced; it has to be seen to be believed.
Strong pacing is a constant in this play. Hester has his characters begin scenes while entering the main part of the stage through Kevin Hagan’s lovely jungle of lacy banners, so no time at all is wasted. Even the set changes, when they are necessary, become part of the action. And the dialogue adheres to the playwright’s command that it be done at a brisk pace. (The show’s extensive verbiage is easily equal to a five-act Shakespeare play—in fact, it’s written as such—but it absolutely flies by.)
Berlatsky’s script is chockablock with wonderful Shakespearean-style insults and metaphors. At one point, in response to being told that Montoya wants to finish something for once in his life, a character responds, “Once in his miserable, sad, lonely, moody, foppish, evil, foolish, stupid, insipid, sycophantic life. That proud cockatrice of a lobotomized cockroach. That rat bastard’s whoreson’s horse’s bastard’s… bastard!” (I’m pretty sure he got his point across.)
Though that last verbal explosion was delivered to a third party, at other times Montoya is not spared (malapert) face-to-face insults rendered in dramatic, overdone metaphors: “You veritable poetic vagrant, you. Waltzing into every one of your loyal servants’ head spaces, demanding room in their brains for you to plop down your problems on the couch of their sympathies, eating up their kind words and doting affections like toast and cereal, without a second thought.” Nor are other characters immune to such faux-Shakespeare barrages: “Oh you clod pole! You vagrant! You so incapable of understanding or computation you ought to have mistaken a scorpion for a steak and died by now!”
(I truly love Shakespearean insults. Did you guess?)
I did not know what to expect beyond “a sendup of the Bard” when I walked in, but it didn’t take long to realize I was watching a gifted, hilarious writer and director, as well as a tremendously talented cast, at work. Berlatsky’s brilliant defiance of heteronormative society will keep you laughing all night long. These days, such shows are needed more than ever, and this one is a joyous surprise.
Tickets for Malapert Love are available from The Artistic Home and at The Den Theatre (1331 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago), box office: (773) 697-3830. It is playing there through Dec 11. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.