Gathered around a table in Strawdog Theatre Company’s office, the cast members of Kill Shakespeare muse about the Bard’s counterparts to the Fantastic Four. They settle on Hamlet as Mr. Fantastic, Juliet as the Invisible Woman, Falstaff as the Human Torch and Othello as the Thing. It’s a fitting diversion considering the source material they’re bringing to the stage: a comic-book series that combines elements from Shakespeare’s plays to create a captivating fantasy adventure.
“We’re trying to dissuade the whole way of thinking of Shakespeare as only for the intellectual elite,” Conor McCreery, 36, says by phone. McCreery created Kill Shakespeare with fellow Toronto native Anthony Del Col, 35. The writing partners, who were exposed to Shakespeare’s work as children attending the Stratford Festival in Ontario, originally envisioned their project as a video game, then a screenplay and ultimately a comic book.
“Comic books were a very intentional choice because comics are looked at as the redheaded stepchild of arts media, and Shakespeare’s the opposite,” McCreery says. “Everyone puts him on a pedestal, but he told dick and fart jokes with the best of them.”
Del Col sees another benefit to the comics medium. “A story like Kill Shakespeare, because it’s so grand and so epic, it would take a lot of resources to put it on screen,” he says by phone. “But whatever we think of, we can bring it to life on the page.”
With artist Andy Belanger, the writers released the 12-issue series through IDW Publishing beginning in April 2010. The story follows the aforementioned Shakespearean figures and pits them against Lady Macbeth, Richard III and Iago, who have teamed up to find and kill the legendary wizard William Shakespeare and gain the power of his magic quill. The comic is a thrilling amalgam of the playwright’s plots and characters, filled with references to his canon. In the third issue, Hamlet and Falstaff try to escape enemy forces by posing as female prostitutes in a brothel called Merry Wives of Windsor. (The first issue of a sequel miniseries, Kill Shakespeare: The Tide of Blood, hits stores this month.)
After the series concluded in 2011, McCreery and Del Col shopped a stage adaptation around Toronto, eventually developing it with Soulpepper Theatre. Due to the constraints of live theater, the adaptation was given a radio-play-like treatment with an added visual element: a 90-minute slideshow of Belanger’s art. For Strawdog, director Anderson Lawfer is going one step further.
“In the past, [Strawdog has] done these radio-style plays, and those are cool and low-budget,” says Lawfer, 33, who was recently named director of programming for the company’s flexible second space, Hugen Hall. “We have the capability now, in Hugen Hall, to make something bigger and way more awesome than that.”
Using multiple projectors, Strawdog will combine Belanger’s still art with moving video. A panel of Richard III in a storm is accompanied by video of rain clouds and lightning. When Hamlet washes up on the English shore, we see crashing waves. “It’s basically the IMAX of comic books,” Lawfer says.
He’s pushing for more ambitious projects in the casual venue, which has hosted The Game Show Show…and Stuff, live music and Strawdog’s late-night roasts. Hugen Hall, he says, is a place for Strawdog’s ensemble to try out nontraditional mediums. “The Strawdog ensemble is willing to take chances and risks, and we have the means to do it.”
Kill Shakespeare opens Monday 4.