A four-piece band – bass and tenor sax, trumpet, and drum – struck up a New Orleans procession-style dirge “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” the tone at once celebratory and sad. A graveside marker, faux floral in cheap white nylon, descended from the rafters and bore the name of the departed, “Fly.” The insect’s was the final death of the 75 that night, and the only one to be memorialized in any traditional way.
Eulogizing all 75 of the deaths would have been far beyond the already spectacular scope of the satirical project that unfolded on the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s second stage on Friday night, a play entitled “The Complete Deaths,” written, produced and staged by the British comedy troupe Spymonkey. The show depicts, alongside a lighted countdown, all 75 of the on-stage deaths that occur in the complete works of Shakespeare. (No, definitely not Ophelia, she died off-stage, just like Lady MacBeth and a few other Shakespeare memorables, we were reminded throughout.)
The crew, four primary actors, sits on some musical talent – in addition to the funeral jazz dirge, there’s a Blue Man Group inspired number wherein the company uses sections of tubing as swords. They strike each other with the tubing, and with each swing and strike a note is produced, culminating in a composition of simple chords: a fun surprise. Music is used throughout, highlighting the free-wheeling stylistic variations of the depictions, which range from contemporary dance numbers to performance art pieces to a Charlie Chaplin Factory-style rendering (a quite literal rendering, of all the characters through a larger than life sausage grinder) of the bloodiest of all Shakespeare plays, Titus Andronicus.
The laughs were plenty and the meta-text was witty – I think we old English majors could take away a little more than others, but there was surely something for everyone, comedy wise, from slapstick to gratuitous nudity to fatuous monologue. The award for best costumed death goes, unsurprisingly, to Cleopatra, who met her stereotypically-Egyptian-music accompanied end with snakes coming out of, well, everywhere.
The death of The Fly in Titus Andronicus was not one that I personally remember from the original works, or rather, the Julie Taymor depiction that represents the entirety of my own experience with Shakespeare’s bloodiest drama. But the 75th and final death of the night, which my friend predicted would be reserved for Hamlet (number 74), was indeed reserved for the six-legged pest that had buzzed around the stage all night. Altogether zany, edgy, funny, unhinged, and just shy of totally over-the top, “The Complete Deaths” takes a load off the typically more serious Shakespearean fare most of us head down to Chicago’s Navy Pier for.
Thanks for reading.