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Free, Fun & Frisky 

Great Lakes Theater Festival lights up Shakespeare's Dark Lady.

One would think it difficult to be fully engaged, entertained, and intellectually stimulated in 30 minutes or less. Movies, concerts, and museum visits take longer, and even the funniest sitcoms ultimately feel a bit thin and insubstantial. Since we don't expect much from that brief a period, we fritter away countless 30-minute chunks of our lives every day, picking lint balls off throw pillows and sitting stupefied in front of Reba.

With that in mind, it's exhilarating to find a short show that's entirely diverting and worthwhile -- not to mention free. The 30 minutes in question make up this witty and frisky staging of The Dark Lady of the Sonnets by George Bernard Shaw, which is touring around town -- including Lorain County Community College and the Solon Public Library this weekend alone --as part of the Great Lakes Theater Festival's outreach program. (Go to www.greatlakestheater.org for a list of locations.) Lest that title imply a stuffy and cloistered academic exercise, it's nothing of the sort.

The title references 24 of William Shakespeare's sonnets that were purportedly addressed to a "dark lady," who served for a spell as the bard's muse. Although her identity was never revealed, speculation had it that she was Mary Fitton, a maid of honor to Queen Elizabeth. So Shaw has placed Will on the terrace of the palace at Whitehall, eager to meet his dark lady and feed his urges.

But the famously egocentric and curmudgeonly Shaw doesn't put Shakespeare on any pedestal in this theatrical hors d'oeuvre, which was originally written as a fund-raiser to establish a national theater in Britain. Since Shaw was of the opinion that Shakespeare was just a "snapper-up" of overheard talk, he has Will scribbling busily in a notebook as he hears phrases that strike his fancy, such as "Frailty, thy name is woman." Portrayed as a shallow writer, an insulting cad and sycophant, the bard gets a thorough going over. And David Hansen delivers the part with irrepressible zest.

Both the Virgin Queen and the Dark Lady, played respectively by Anne McEvoy and Magdalyn Donnelly, get a chance to confront Shakespeare, who at the time of this telling is just a common country actor and a fledgling playwright with a couple lightweight shows to his credit. McEvoy's Queen exudes contempt for this rube, and Donnelly rages about feeling used and abused by Will's creative process. It's a fascinating triangle, and Andrew May's deft direction brings out all the zingers in Shaw's piece. (Speaking of his somewhat tattered family history, Shakespeare says of his father: "Never did he disown his debts! True, he never paid them . . .")

The rich language, sly humor, and pitch-perfect performances (including Michael Regnier as a frank and funny palace guard) make this a half-hour that keeps you laughing and thinking from start to finish. Match that, Reba.

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