Van Ryzin: Fix Shakespeare? Kirk Lynn and the Rude Mechanicals give it a try

William Shakespeare wrote 37 plays.

Or 39 if you’re the Folger Shakespeare Library, which includes one play that scholars maintain was lost to history. Then again, some scholars claim there are two lost Shakespeare plays. (Counting Shakespeare’s plays is a veritable academic cottage industry and the source of much intellectual tussle.)

But while there’s seemingly never a shortage of “Hamlet,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” or “Romeo and Juliet” iterations to choose from nowadays, plenty of the Bard’s plays rarely get an audience.

Take “King John,” Shakespeare’s dramatic history of the cold-blooded struggle for the English crown in the 12th century.

“King John” used to be popular. Theatergoers in Victorian England loved the play’s pageantry. Likewise across the pond in America in the 19th century. Abraham Lincoln is said to have turned to the play for some solace after the death of his son, Willie.

No so much today, though. “King John” is one of Shakespeare’s least produced plays.

Hence Austin playwright Kirk Lynn’s desire to fix it.

Lynn’s “Fixing King John” opens Thursday, a production of the now internationally recognized Austin theater collective the Rude Mechanicals, of which Lynn is a co-founder.

Trimmed to a quick-moving 90 minutes,“Fixing King John” has 10 characters, down from the Bard’s original cast of 22. And those 10 characters speak in contemporary, colloquial, profanity-laced American English.

A co-founder of the Rudes and head of the University of Texas’ playwrighting and directing program, Lynn suggests some reasons why “King John” doesn’t resonate with contemporary audiences.

“It’s convoluted, and it has no great hero or villain,” says Lynn. “It’s just not an epic.”

Nor is the play particularly rife with memorable monologues, Lynn points out. And as a character, King John is very malleable and too fallible. The plays ends oddly, too, and it isn’t driven by an arch of moral in the way that Shakespeare’s other history plays are.

Nevertheless, the play’s story — of a struggle for power, of a savage ruler obsessed with his legacy and of his rejection of the authority of the church — makes for good theater, Lynn points out.

Lynn started by translating Shakespeare’s original text line by line into contemporary English. Then, he condensed, trimmed extraneous characters, and cut entire scenes.

“What would a new Shakespeare play have felt like in Shakespeare’s time?” Lynn speculates. “Is it possible to have some experience of that today, with today’s language?”

“Fixing King John” is the first of the Rude Mechanicals’ “Fixing Shakespeare” series, an endeavor to rework the Bard’s least known plays for contemporary audiences.

And like so much of their evocative, intellectual and yet gently humorous plays, the script for “Fixing King John” reads as quintessential Rude Mechanicals.

“Many feel that Shakespeare’s works are improved by a smattering of Lords, Heralds, Officers, Soldiers, Messengers and other Attendants,” Lynn writes. “Feel free to sprinkle your productions with friends and relatives who may not be the best actors but will love wearing the costumes.”

And to that end, Lynn provides two pages of suggested lines at the end of script, some predictable (Lords: “As you wish.”) and others delightfully contemporary (Messengers: “I’m gonna tell everybody!”).

That the Rudes, as they are sometimes known, would apply their genre-bending style of theatre to demystify Shakespeare, is really no surprise.

Lynn, along with co-founders Madge Darlington, Lana Lesley, Sarah Richardson and Shawn Sides, cut his theatrical teeth as an undergraduate at UT’s Shakespeare in Winedale summer program. And when the fivesome formed a creative collaborative in 1995 — well, they looked to the Bard.

In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a group of laborers described as “rude mechanicals,” are also amateur, bumbling actors who perform (badly and funnily) a play within the play.

One of the Rudes’ first creations was “Curst & Shrewd: The Taming of the Shrew Unhinged,” an inventive, feminist remake of Shakespeare comedy about romance and marriage.

Now, the Rude Mechanicals are the resident theatre company for UT’s Department of Theatre and Dance. And they spend more, if not most, of their time touring their work outside Austin. In January, the troupe will premiere its latest, “Stop Hitting Yourself,” at Lincoln Center.

Ditto with Lynn’s independent work. In March, “Bum Phillips All-American Opera,” Lynn’s collaboration with composer Peter Stopschinski about the Texas football legend, premieres at New York’s off-off Broadway La Mama Theatre. The same month, Lynn’s comedy “Your Mother’s Copy of the Kama Sutra” opens at the popular Off Broadway company Playwrights Horizons.

After its premiere, the “Fixing King John” script will be available royalty-free, a deliberate gesture, Lynn says, to encourage young thespians to try an alternative version of the Bard.

He laughs: “We’re hoping rogue high school groups — smart-alecky theater nerd types — decide to do the play, which will probably horrify their teachers with the amount of ‘F’ bombs in it, but will just make most teenagers like it more.”

Enter a new troupe of rude mechanicals?

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