Floyd King is discovered by an errant spotlight at the outset of Mad About the Bard, lounging in what Lady Bracknell would refer to as a “semi-recumbent posture” halfway up a circular staircase. There’s a large portrait of Shakespeare on the stage below him, and one or two other hints of Elizabethanism. But already it’s pretty clearfrom the Noel Coward-ly title projected on an overhead screen, the performer’s impish grin, and the tinkling notes emanating from a center-stage pianothat this will be one very Bobby Short-ish Shakespearean evening.
Indeed, as Kingwho’s mostly known hereabouts for his ability to make audiences chortle over Elizabethan quatrainsdescends the staircase, he’s singing “Let’s Do It” lyrics by Cole Porter that have been brightly modified for this occasion: “Some seasoned old pros do it/When we get a bit tight/The cast of Henry VI did it/But it took them all night.” That’s iambic hexameter, I think, not that it matters.
Shortly thereafter, King is launching briskly into “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from Kiss Me Kate, Porter’s musical spoof of The Taming of the Shrew. And before long he’s lending flawless camp styling to a ditty or two by Noel Coward, including the parody of “Mad About the Boy” (new lyrics supplied by Jason Kravits) that gives the evening its title. To start that one, King reaches deep inside himself to some long-hidden reservoir of sultriness, then slinks to center stage dragging a chair behind him, looking for all the world like Madeline Kahn doing Marlene Dietrich in Blazing Saddles.
By the start of the evening’s second half, the actor is either Hamlet’s Gertrude or Gertrude Lawrenceit’s hard to say whichreclining atop the piano, all dolled-up in satin turban and floor-length scarlet gown trimmed in black ostrich feathers. The song this time is a novelty number called “Which Witch?” about an aging diva who wants assurances that she’ll get top billing if she plays one of the ancient crones in Macbeth. A bit later, King is hoofing with pianist George Fulginiti-Shakar to a song from Rodgers & Hart’s Comedy of Errors musical, The Boys From Syracuse.
There are nonmusical bits as wellsome sketch comedy by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, snatches of the uproarious “So That’s the Way You Like It” skit from Beyond the Fringe, a short, piquant play by Harold Pinter about a vainglorious old Shakespearean actorall shoehorned gracefully by director Ethan McSweeny into what amounts to a Bardolatrous revue. But you’ll have noted by now that the one constant in this survey of selections is that their authors all hail from Broadway and London’s West End, not from Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Mad though this performer and director may be about the Bard, they have chosen to celebrate him at the Folger Shakespeare Library mostly by proxy. It’s easy for me to imagine how this might have happened: Mad About the Bard had its genesis as a fund-raising cabaret for the Shakespeare Theatre and as such was aimed at longtime subscribers, corporate sponsors, and other insiders who’ve seen King strut his stuff in iambic pentameter dozens of times. For such a crowd, the kick lay in watching their favorite master of Elizabethan comedy stretch musical-comedy muscles he’d not used in a while.
In expanding the material for general consumption, however, the show’s creators should probably have been more generous in giving lay audiences hints as to what it is that King does in his day joband savvier about what those hints should be. For instance, at one point, King looks up at the Shakespeare Library’s ceiling and reads its stencilled “All the world’s a stage,” which sets him off on the Seven Ages of Man speech. At another, playing a puffed-up star who’s demanded rewrites from Shakespeare, he’s handed a freshly penned soliloquy that begins, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”
King does a lovely job with each speech, his voice deepening and growing more resonant with every syllable. But neither of these soliloquiesand they’re the only extended passages of Shakespeare in the entire eveningmakes much use of this actor’s special gift for Elizabethan comedy, which means audiences who’ve never been reduced to helpless giggles by his magnificently flummoxed clowns may have trouble getting a handle on the evening’s central joke.
It wouldn’t take much to rectify the problem. A speech or two by King as a cross-gartered Jaques, malaprop-spewing Dogberry, or sodden Trinculo would do the trick in a trice. Moreover, those characters would seem right at home with the folks already up there on stagethe children’s theater director, for instance, who is convinced that his Hansel and Gretel Players need to punch up the yuks in Hamlet.
For patrons who are already King fans, of course, the absence of actual Shakespearean clowning won’t be a problem. And even for new acquaintances, there are plenty of laughs to be had in the more modern material. The actor is hard to resist when he dons pigtails and a calico dress to describe a comely hayseed’s first encounter with the Bard. He’s equally delicious as a young actor trying to obey his Elizabethan Acting prof’s instruction to pack a dozen conflicting emotions into the single word “time” and simultaneously “suffuse it with the color red.” And he’s captivating when talking of his own performance experiencesthe backstage nerves, the audible audience whispers, the gushing of fans he meets on the street.
Those moments more than make up for the ones that work less well. King hasn’t, for instance, been able to do anything very special with Noel Coward’s “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington” Then again, why should he have to? Apart from a Peer Gynt joke (that probably went over well at the fundraiser since Shakespeare Theater just did Gynt this season), the number’s connection to an evening devoted to the Bard is tenuous at best. Better to jettison it and reserve those minutes for Lear’s Fool. That character, if memory of Shakespeare Theatre’s production serves, found the actor in his usual exemplary formtruly a King fit for a Bard. CP