Is It Shakespeare or Are They Just Shakin’ It?: ‘Fishy Woo Woo’ at PPTCo

Members of the Fishy Woo Woo crew present arms. L to R are Shawn (Jason Shavers), Char (Cheryl Bates-White), and Cordero (Mils 'MJ' James).

Members of the Fishy Woo Woo crew present arms. L to R are Shawn (Jason Shavers), Char (Cheryl Bates-White), and Cordero (Mils ‘MJ’ James).

Maybe it’s pushing things a bit to find elements of Shakespeare in a wacky buddy comedy. But maybe Monteze Freeland is our emerging Shakespeare-to-be; we’ll see! Freeland—best known, so far, as a director and actor—is the playwright behind Fishy Woo Woo, now in its premiere run (through June 15) at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. 

Freeland comes across as a theater wonk with a capital W. In his program notes for Fishy Woo Woo, he defines the play as a farce and proceeds to list nine characteristics of a farce. He also refers to the play as being presented through a “Black queer lens,” which it is. All characters are Black and three are gay men. But let’s talk about the Shakespeare parallels, which kept insinuating themselves into the mind of this reviewer, amid the laughs and the hijinks onstage. 

At the core of Fishy Woo Woo is one of old Will’s favorite comic devices, people acting as people they aren’t and therefore mistaken identities. Then consider the characters. At times, loosey-goose Cordero (Mils “MJ” James) and his more serious pal Shawn (Jason Shavers) wake echoes of the legendary duo Falstaff and Prince Hal. (And by the way, can you think of a more Shakespearean name than Cordero?) Add a feisty woman to the pair—in Fishy Woo Woo it’s Char, played by Cherlyl Bates-White—and the result is a trippy trio reminiscent of Sirs Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek plus naughty Maria in Twelfth Night. That’s the comedy in which the three play a trick on Malvolio. And wouldn’t you know, this play even has somewhat of a Malvolio equivalent in young Kaden (Royce Jones), a trickee who becomes the object of a modern-day trick. 

Perhaps you don’t care about Shakespeare, let alone know these arcane references to plays from back when. Or perhaps you are a sharp intellectual who wants to point out that there’s nothing really new under the sun anyhow. Shakespeare borrowed from other sources; everybody soaks up influences from everybody whether they know it or not, so what’s the big deal? Tell us about the play!

In three words, it’s worth seeing. You get high-energy humor coupled with lines that hit home. Perfection it ain’t. Some parts seem to either circle too long before landing or beat a horse while it’s neighing no mas. But if perfection is what you seek, enroll in a quality-control course and find a job in a factory where your goal is to ensure zero defects. For a night out at the theater, the goal is to enjoy an experience. And I think the Fishy Woo Woo crew will see that you do. 

The Plot Quickens

One might call Fishy Woo Woo a love story. It opens with, and revolves around, a lovesick guy who’s been dumped. It ends on a medley of upbeat notes, though not the ones you might expect. In between, the guy and his friends careen through the tricky backstreets of love —  tainted love, sunk-cost-fallacy love, didn’t-you-see-the-warning-label love — sustained by the fact that they share best-friend love. Clumsy and erratic as it may be.

Shawn had been cruising through middle age, thinking he had a partner for life, until he didn’t. When we meet Shawn he is cleaning out his stuff from the apartment the two men had shared, morosely packing items into boxes while his faithless ex stays away. We never see or hear the ex, but Shawn has company in his former home that’s now become a museum of lost dreams. Friends Cordero and Char are eager to help him pack, and if possible to cheer him up and soothe his broken heart.

They’re not exactly experts in matters of the heart. Char is divorcing an older man who couldn’t keep pace—“the older he got, the younger I felt,” she chirps, happy to be fleeing the coop—and Cordero … ah, Cordero. Totally lacking experience with long-term affairs, by choice, he’s a self-described “in and out” man who admits “the longest relationship I had was with T-Mobile.”

Our hero’s situation may be dreary, but the play isn’t. The repartee that’s quoted here in isolated itty-bits goes flying around as thick as a murmuration of musical birds. Moreover, the entire play is a dance. Not ballet (although near-pirouettes occur), but rather the kind where every single he and she acts out and flings him/herself through every word and emotion, even bursting into song. Pretty effing electric. Maybe there’s a little too much swishing, but the swishing is done well. 

Enter a Wild Card

Kaden (Royce Jones, L) is operating in epistomological la-la land, unaware that he doesn't know who others are or who they think he is.

Kaden (Royce Jones, L) is operating in epistemological la-la land, unaware that he doesn’t know who others are or who they think he is.

Then, when the dance of myriad moving parts just about reaches high tide, an unexpected visitor shows up: the ex’s new man. If a teenaged college student who wants to use the wi-fi can be called a man. That’s Kaden. And that’s when the dance of mistaken identities begins. Cordero, the quick-witted in-and-outer, quickly decides—upon learning who Kaden is—that Shawn must not be allowed to know that his ex’s new fix is present, so he, Cordero, rapidly engineers a charade in which each person must pretend to be somebody else, or be made to believe that somebody is somebody else, or act accordingly.

The foregoing may not be stated clearly. The confusion that plays out on stage is satisfying, hoot-wise. 

And a bonus awaits. As a farce, Fishy Woo Woo is more than merely farce. You may come away from the play with a meaningful message or two. Such as, the real identity mistakes that one needs to watch out for. Suitable for application in your own love life, or lack thereof. 

Closing Credits and Ticket Info

Monteze Freeland’s Fishy Woo Woo is directed for Pittsburgh Playwrights by Lovell McFadden. In addition to the actors seen on stage, Brenda Marks contributes in a voice role. Through June 15 at Madison Arts Center, 3401 Milwaukee St., Upper Hill District. For tickets and more information visit Pittsburgh Playwrights on the web

Scenic design is by Mark C. Southers, lighting by Jason Kmetic, and sound by Howard Patterson. Costumes, hair, and makeup are by Cheryl El Walker. Props are by Sarah “Gracie” Jackson and Austin Sills. The technical director is Mark Clayton Southers; the stage manager is Ashley Southers. Remarkaby, no choreographer is listed, but the actors’ artful movement came from somewhere. 

Photos by Mark C. Southers

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater and other topics for Entertainment Central. 

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