Soaring ‘Skullduggery’ at Sacred Fools Theater Company

Fratricide –
Infidelity –
Parricide –
Rebellion –
The swain of Avon –
And toe tapping ditties.

One must admire the chutzpa Michael Shaw Fisher displays in Skullduggery for which he composed the music, provided the lyrics and wrote the book for this – wait for it!

Musical prequel to Hamlet!

Creatively speaking, that’s a heck of a lot of minefields to plow into headfirst.

The audience is at first inclined to hunker down, close their eyes and wait for the inevitable explosion preceding his body parts raining down on them. But then, something strange happens.

There’s no “boom.”

And as eyes are cautiously opened, they see a most remarkable sight.

Michael Shaw Fisher, in the midst of the deadly mine field, tap dancing.

Fisher, a self-confessed “bardophile,” showed his chops in his one-man musical Shakespeare’s Last Night Out at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe. With Skullduggery he establishes himself as a certified “triple threat.”

The first act opens “30 years before the events of Hamlet,”, with two loving brothers Claudius (John Bobek) and the senior Hamlet (David Haverty) at the court of Elsinore as their overbearing, abusive father prepares to lead the kingdom, and his sons, into war.

Rebecca Larsen, Leigh Wulff - Photos by Jessica Sherman Photography.

Rebecca Larsen, Leigh Wulff – Photos by Jessica Sherman Photography.

Claudius, a sensitive soul who writes poetry to his beloved Gertrude (Leigh Wulff), dreads the thought, but he is “too much in the sun” to refuse his father. It is only through the intercession of Hamlet, Sr., who brings down the wrath of their father on himself, that Claudius is spared the horrors of war.

Fisher knows his Shakespeare, and populates his stage with beguiling spins on familiar characters such as Polonius (Curt Bonnem) while inventing new ones such as the sharp-tongued randy Berta (Rebecca Larsen); Mrs. Polonius who is definitely the brains in the family.

Much of what follows foreshadows Shakespeare’s play, ghostly warnings from a murdered father, the death of Yorick (Brendan Hunt), and the forced marriage of Gertrude and Claudius, returned from the war victorious and king.

The second act is set “One month before the events of Hamlet.” Hamlet, Sr. is now the overbearing tyrant who keeps Gertrude in a loveless marriage and his brother in service to his every whim.

There are plots of revolution and of lovers fleeing from the kingdom, but destiny will out, and destiny is a bitch; Hamlet, Jr. is on his way home from college. Trouble brewing.

Fisher adds twists and surprises to the pathway that leads a couple of guys to a cold battlement and a nasty run-in with a dead king’s ghost.

Coming in to the Sacred Fools’ theatre the audience is immediately impressed by the shadowy and artful set of DeAnne Millais, which serves as an inkling of things to come.

Producer Brian Wallis and director Scott Leggett have given Skullduggery a superb mounting throughout. They are aided in this by Natasha Norman’s first rate choreography, Linda Muggeridge’s costume design and Andrew Schmedake’slighting design.

It is top to bottom a beautiful production that shows L.A. equity stage at its very best.

This striding for the best extends to the cast.

CJ Merriman, Jeff Sumner and Matt Valle as the “zanies” open the evening with a rip-roaring rendering of “Hammy” and fill in for besotted revolutionaries and timid dungeon guards where needed. Bobek as Claudius, Larsen as Berta and Alyssa Rupert as the hot to trot Ophelia, turn in a trio of stellar performances. Brendan Hunt who has delighted audiences in Absolutely Filthy and other Sacred Fools crowd pleasers continues pleasing those crowds with admirable aplomb and Pat Towne as Osric and Ghost King brings a presence and a voice that could fill the Forum to overflowing.

Jeff Sumner, Matt Valle, Cj Merriman - Photos by Jessica Sherman Photography.

Jeff Sumner, Matt Valle, Cj Merriman – Photo by Jessica Sherman Photography.

But without a play worthy of all this beautiful stagecraft and talented acting, Skullduggery would be nothing but diamonds and silk draped over a foul smelling rabid wolverine.

Well, I’m happy to say there is no wolverine under all that finery. What one finds is a smart, funny and totally enjoyable work that deserves to be added to repertory seasons along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and the Bard’s own masterpiece.

The book is clever and faithful—for all its departures and double-dealings—to its source.

The score offers a variety of melodies, all of which are of merit, and there are moments in Fisher’s lyrics that approach poetry itself, “They dance like burning paper in the breeze.”

If I had to find fault with the show, and let’s face it, I’m a critic that’s what I’m supposed to do, it would be to question one casting choice and the number of songs included in the evening.

While I can’t say there was a single tune that played flat, the show feels a bit overburdened by 28 numbers.

That said, this was a wonderful show, and if feathers were passed out for adding to the bonnets of all those deserving of them, I doubt you’d find an eagle from here to the Rockies that wouldn’t be plucked bald.

Kudos to the Sacred Fools, Michael Shaw Fisher and all involved.

 (**Featured Photo: John Bobek as Claudius, David Haverty as Hamlet Sr. —  Photos by Jessica Sherman Photography.**)


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book, lyrics & music by Michael Shaw Fisher
directed by Scott Leggett
musical direction and arrangement by Michael Teoli
choreography by Natasha Norman

Skullduggery: The Musical Prequel To Hamlet plays
Fridays & Saturdays @ 8pm with Sunday Matinees @ 3pm
Now through November 5, 2016.

For Tickets and Additional Information:

Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at and Follow him on Facebook.

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