'For the Joy of the Sting' an intriguing adventure

Writer-director Mick Axelrod’s “For the Joy of the Sting,” at Las Vegas Little Theatre Studio, is an enjoyable mess, rich in possibilities.

Axelrod labels his tragedy “a verse play written with the conceits of a Shakespearean tragedy.” It’s set in some sort of alternate England during a period of intense conflict. We follow the adventures of physics student Felix (Michael Drake) as he battles a jealous cousin (Brandon White), beds a beautiful spy (Christine De Chavez) and does some vicious killing before he himself is brutally butchered.

The script offers many smart references to the Bard’s stories and, better yet, gives off Shakespeare vibes. Although the mood is serious, Axelrod’s homage to the Elizabethan style is humorously accurate.

As a director, Axelrod has an instinctive visual sense. He knows how to get the most out of a stage.

There’s a problem at the script’s core, though: The situations and characters are simply not interesting enough. Once Axelrod introduces his people and lets us know what types they are, he doesn’t have much more to say about them.

Felix and the spy are hot for one another, but we don’t understand why Felix would risk everything to be with her. Is the young Felix the sort of fellow who goes after what he wants, no matter the consequence? To what degree is he willing to sacrifice for his country?

Axelrod does an expert job of giving the material a jocular, Shakespearean feel but fails to give us characters to care about.

The first act is difficult to follow because most of the actors speak in a sing-song manner meant to emphasize rhythms and rhymes. It’s not easy to focus on what they’re saying because we’re so distracted by how they’re saying it.

But the second act is a page turner. The action moves swiftly, the climax is well-structured, and a final visual involving the entire cast is a stunner. I just wish the characters were human enough so that the ending would mean something to us.

Axelrod has assembled a talented 10-member cast. I particularly enjoyed Ronn Williams, who brings great authority and genuine childlike emotion to his role as a lieutenant, and Jesse Bourque, who, as another military man, manages to achieve remarkable naturalness and believability while still respecting the heightened reality of the language.

Bourque is everything lead actor Drake is not. As Felix, Drake has carefully worked out his lines and says them all with expression but gives us no clue who this man is. I wish the young actor would focus more on what makes the characters he portrays in various plays different from one another.

Jennifer McKee’s costumes are colorful, subdued, sensual, creative and suggestive of a modern but not time-specific world.

For all its flaws, “For the Joy of the Sting” is an intriguing adventure. Axelrod is an artist, and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow. He deserves our attention.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at vegastheaterchat@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.