Double, Double, Fun and Trouble: Penny Seats Theatre Company's "The Renaissance Man"
Penny Seats Theatre Company's The Renaissance Man is a lot of fun, but that’s to be expected. After all, this is a play about a Renaissance festival, with actors traipsing about Ann Arbor's West Park dressed as pirate knights and gypsy elves. And if you’ve ever seen any Penny Seats show, you know before reading this that you’re in for a good time.
“First and foremost, I want people to walk away having had fun,” said Joseph Zettelmaier, playwright and director of The Renaissance Man, which is a modern comedy based on Macbeth. “I said from the jump that I want people to watch the play, and even if a Renaissance faire isn't their thing, I want them to get why people would want to do it. There are other themes throughout, but I'd rather people see it and decide what they are for themselves.”
What comes as a bit of a surprise, though, is that The Renaissance Man is overtly a play about the importance of fun. It bounces nimbly between wit and philosophy, but that fun is tempered just a touch by something more melancholy and far more beautiful. (Full disclosure: I have worked with the Penny Seats on its past couple of shows, including The Renaissance Man, in minor capacities.)
The Penny Seats Theatre Company, now in its seventh season, is known for its two outdoor summertime shows in front of West Park's bandshell. Outdoor theater may conjure up images of unmiked amateurs performing plays that have little emotional resonance. But in this case, that’s not accurate or fair: The Renaissance Man is exceptional Ann Arbor theater, with a sharp script and a cast of professional actors nailing their parts despite being garbed in robes, corsets, and metallic armor while walking around in 86 degree heat, dueling with swords and chanting.
The Renaissance Man adapts Macbeth into the context of a local Renaissance festival. But that one-sentence summary doesn’t quite do it service. This is a play about the benefits of fun versus education, about how power corrupts even the well-meaning among us, and about a woman talking to a facepaint-stained shirt and that shirt talking and singing back to her.
The play also includes music, and many of the songs are pithy and fun; others are haunting and will follow you for days. The same can also be said about the script itself, which is nuanced and layered.
This speech, spoken by Martin Mackabee, the modern-day Macbeth, will likely resonate with anyone who has ever felt alien and alone: “That’s what this place was meant to be! A place where ... if you’re an outcast out there, you’re embraced in here. No one judges you for being ... anything. And if I was gonna be a knight for Chuck, then it was my job to make sure those who couldn’t defend themselves were safe within these tents.”
But Mackabee's open earnestness is swept away when he turns into a power-hungry tyrant as the rush of being a (Ren faire) king begins to corrupt him. “I think a story about giving in to dark desires, then seeing those desires turn against you is identifiable to many,” said Zettelmaier.
Zettelmaier began working on this script four years ago and has so far published 25 plays that are available for production. “Like every writer out there, I've got stuff squirreled away that will likely never see the light of day," he said. "My first play was called Science Friction, and it was a comedy about an alien abduction support group. The desire to become a playwright happened just out of college for me, while I was an apprentice at the Purple Rose Theatre. I had the opportunity to work with Lanford Wilson, who was a major influence on the way I write, though our styles are wildly different.”
As for his biggest challenge in writing Renaissance Man, Zettelmaier said it was “trying to capture the enormity of a Renaissance faire onstage. I'd love to have vendors and live animals and whatnot onstage, but the practical limitations are real. That being said, I'm particularly proud of this cast and their way of inhabiting this unusual world. It's a very tight-knit group, and I really wanted to show how much fun they have together, how much these characters are a strange family. I'm a big fan of love on stage. The more people care about each other, the higher the stakes.”
In this particular play, that love takes the form of donning elf ears and comforting a good friend who is muttering insults at a talking shirt. But weird love is still love. Yes, The Renaissance Man is absolutely a hilarious play, but it’s also a touching and memorably affectionate version of Macbeth that celebrates what makes us individuals.
Toby Tieger has directed, acted in, and written plays over the last 10 years, and sees theater as often as he can. He is a building supervisor with the Ann Arbor District Library.