The Bard and the Booze: Thoughts on Drunk Shakespeare – October 31, 2015

Shakespeare’s plays have existed for hundreds of years and have been adapted in a myriad of ways and performed in (almost) all media genres. The interpretations have ranged from the literal to the metaphoric, the serious to the surreal – his works have been translated into every (living) language in the world, and performed by men and women of all ages. Some interpretations are of the complete text (as they were written/transcribed), and some are reductions or adaptations of the aforementioned complete text. But for all the brilliant performances given by countless actors over the centuries in all the various incarnations of the text all over the world, there was something missing from those productions.

Alcohol.

Well, at least the overt inclusion of alcohol during the performance – I’m almost certain that covert intoxication has been a component of an actor’s performance of Shakespeare (and perhaps other plays) since they were first conceived. Drunk Shakespeare, as performed by members of the Drunk Shakespeare Society, sets to fill this void, and with great spirit(s) [pun well intended], currently playing at the Lounge at the Roy Arias Stages on West 44th Street (near 8th Avenue). I obtained these tickets via the TDF ticket raffle table at the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS [BC/EFA] Flea Market & Grand Auction, and was intrigued by the premise of one actor downing (at least) 5 shots of whisky before attempting to perform a Shakespearean play.

Drunk Shakespeare

[Disclaimer: As their site www.drunkshakespeare.com/ states, “We do not condone excessive drinking. Our actors have a regular rotation system and are carefully monitored at all times. Drinking in moderation can be fun. Drinking to excess can ruin your life.  We promote healthy drinking.”

So these are professional drinkers of (American) legal drinking age – DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.]

As alcohol is a vital component of the performance, theatergoers have to be 21+ (and they do check IDs) – indeed upon entering the performance space, which is surrounded by bookshelves with chairs all around, patrons are handed a complimentary shot (on the night I went, it was a Tequila Sunrise). As it was Halloween, the Shakespeare play performed was (appropriately) Macbeth, and performed within 90 minutes, with five actors – four men and one woman, one of whom has the aforementioned multiple shots of whisky. At the performance I attended (with my friend Kelley, who was dressed up as Neil Diamond, circa 1970s), the five actors were Whit Leyenberger, Julia Giolzetti, Tim Haber (who also acted as the Host of the proceedings, explaining the overall premise), Brandon Carter and Josh Sauerman (the designated drunk actor). In the spirit of Halloween, several audience members (and the cast) were dressed in costume, and they held an informal costume contest, for which the first prize was a bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne – my friend Kelley won the contest, so thus we were bestowed said bottle of champagne.

 The overall concept of Drunk Shakespeare is a kind of mash-up of the ethos of The Reduced Shakespeare Company, with a healthy dose of improv, reminiscent of Second City and Whose Line is it Anyway? The spirit of reduction abounds (skipping the “boring” parts and getting right to the sex and the killing), with periodic flourishes of pop culture references and audience participation/interaction, as well as challenges for the actors to incorporate throughout the performance, assigned by their fellow actors. There was definitely a sense of camaraderie (chemistry?) among the quintet – they reacted to one another not so much as a troupe of actors but more as a group of longtime friends putting on a (Shakespearean) play.

There wasn’t that much of a stage door experience, as the performance space was sparse (yet effective), and the cast (and audience) dispersed quickly after the performance, and I didn’t have the wherewithal to ask for a group photo with the cast (which may or may not have been impaired by the free champagne and Tequila Sunrise), I did manage to snap a photo of some of the cast with the costumed audience members (among whom was my friend Kelley).

Drunk Shakespeare Halloween

It’s a brilliantly entertaining evening (or in my case, late afternoon) to watch a (literal) handful of actors perform the essence of a Shakespeare play, and to watch how (well) the intoxicated actor fares throughout the performance. Each performance is of a different play, with a different actor designated to partake in the “nectar of the gods”, so theoretically, there is a near infinite combination of possibilities and a high probability of a uniquely different performance every time. I highly recommend seeing this show, and to experience Shakespeare as it (probably) was performed back in Elizabethan times: with a healthy (moderate) dose of alcohol.

For more information, including performance schedules, visit: http://www.drunkshakespeare.com/

Drunk Shakespeare flyers

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Blood Will Have Blood: Thoughts on Macbeth – October 30, 2013

Murder, revenge, love, and ambition – the Bard is (almost) everywhere in the fall of 2013, or at least for a limited time, as there are productions of Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, Richard III and Macbeth on Broadway, and a production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream at the new Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. It’s as if the Gods of the Theater are helping me compensate for my not having seen any Shakespeare productions in the past (probably not, but it does seem that way). Interestingly, the Lincoln Center production of Macbeth is the second that I had seen this year, the first being the (nearly) one man adaptation with Alan Cumming earlier in the year, which was set in a psychiatric institution and in contemporary time. The Lincoln Center production, currently playing at the Vivian Beaumont theatre through January 12, 2014, is set nearer to the play’s original time with the customary period costumes, staging and a full cast, with much thanks to the TDF Raffle table at this year’s Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Flea Market & Auction.

Macbeth poster

To compare the two productions I have seen would be a disservice to both productions, as they are both uniquely frightening and compelling, though to have seen the full production as it was (presumably) originally staged adds to the already heightened drama of the play. All aspects between the two productions differ from one another (set design, lighting, costumes, etc.), but still have the capacity to shock and enthrall the audience. The Vivian Beaumont theatre (one of a handful of Broadway theaters in which I had yet to see a production) is the perfect space to showcase this tragedy, as the configuration of the stage is a thrust, which adds immediacy to the progression of the play.

[Fact: For those who many not be too familiar with stage configuration (myself being one) a trust stage is a one that extends into the audience on three sides, and has a wide upstage/backstage area, and entrances and exits can made via passages below the seats, with the appearance that the actors are leaving through the audience – the correct technical term is a vomitory entrance.]

Macbeth LCT cast list

The set design is sparse yet effective, with areas raised in the middle of the thrust stage to simulate tables, areas depressed to represent the witches’ cauldron, and a pair of iron-wrought staircases and walkway in between. The costumes were relatively contemporary of the play’s setting, with medieval leather armor, swords and shields as well as Victorian dress for the non-battle scenes. The sound and lighting design were astounding, from the atmospheric chanting to underscore the action to the gentle twitter of birds in the distance; the lighting was also striking with the use of light and darkness to accentuate the tension without undercutting the horror – while the murders take place on stage, they are not so much seen but heard, which makes the deeds even more frightening. The cast was astounding, from Byron Jennings, John Glover and Malcolm Gets as the three witches, shrouded in tattered robes with their feline familiars, embodied by a trio of actors (Patrick Vaill, Paul Kite and Stephanie Fieger) who added a level of creepiness to the malice they would inflict on susceptible Macbeth, played superbly by Ethan Hawke as a man reluctant yet resigned to his prophetic fate and goes to great lengths to ensure his destiny to Anne-Marie Duff, as the pragmatic Lady Macbeth prodding her husband to his bloody fate, and meets her own dour destiny.

The stage door experience this time round was inadvertent, as this was my first time at the Vivian Beaumont, I didn’t know where the stage door was – nevertheless I stumbled upon it as I found my way out of the Lincoln Center area. There weren’t too many people about (probably due to the lateness of the hour and perhaps not knowing where the stage door was). I didn’t stay too long either, though I did manage to meet a few of the cast, who were all friendly signing playbills and such.

All in all, I do recommend seeing this production of Macbeth for a classic tale of greed, murder and ambition showcased as it might have been back in Shakespearean times. Modern adaptations of this bloody play are all well and good, as it is evidence of the universality of the play’s themes, but there is something gut-wrenching watching a full production in period costumes and effective technical design that makes the story all the more terrifying.

Then again, I did see this production the night before Halloween, so that might have had an influence as well.

Macbeth signed playbill

Something Wicked This Way Comes: Musings on Macbeth – May 26, 2013

As my previous blog dealt with an inventive pastiche combining Shakespeare with two iconic American sitcoms, it seemed appropriate (almost necessary) that this blog post would focus on the genuine article – in this case, Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Like most people, my first exposure to this play was as a reading assignment in school, though I was quite familiar with the plot and many of its famous lines (as the title of this blog post can attest). While I’ve read some of Shakespeare’s plays, seen film and television adaptations of his plays, and had visited the Globe Theater in London and Stratford-Upon-Avon, I have not actually seen a Shakespeare play performed on stage, that is, one that wasn’t a pastiche – of course I have seen The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) and the aforementioned The Bardy Bunch.

While I’m sure there are countless Shakespeare productions off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway, as well as Shakespeare in the Park, every now and then a Shakespeare play is produced on Broadway, almost always with a big name star in the leading role(s), which seems to me to be a clever marketing strategy to entice those who would not normally go see a Shakespeare play (or any play for that matter); at least that’s my overall impression – though I will admit that I tend to see more musicals than plays (but I’m striving to change that). This rather long-winded explanation brings me to Macbeth, currently playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theater for a limited run through July 14, 2013.

Macbeth marquee

This adaptation of the Bard’s bloody tragedy about the power of prophesy and its influence on ambition is set in a stark room in a psychiatric institution, and is a predominantly a one man performance, with Alan Cumming inhabiting all the roles in the play (that there are two other actors on stage as well, Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley, respectively a doctor and a nurse at the psychiatric institution, who intermittently interact with Mr. Cumming). Also present are a trio of closed circuit cameras and monitors that play a significant role in the retelling of Macbeth’s journey to fulfill the prophesies bestowed upon him by the Three Witches and the harrowing events that lead him (and his wife) down a path of madness. Mr. Cumming has received much critical acclaim for his expert portrayal of the various characters in this tragedy (though not a Tony nomination, which I feel is an egregious oversight) and rightly so – he was able to employ a range of affectations that distinguished one character from another, moving with speed and agility across a sparse stage, as well as using props and the presence of the closed circuit monitors to distinguish the different characters. Macbeth is probably the scariest of all of Shakespeare’s plays, and of course is famous for being a cursed play and with good reasons.

The curse of the Scottish Play is not a laughing matter.

The curse of the Scottish Play is a VERY serious matter, with not to be trifled.

This production was genuinely frightening, with eerie, ambient underscore, coupled with moments of complete silence, the presence of the aforementioned closed circuit cameras and monitors flickering on and off, and the clever use of the lighting that added to the suspense. It was almost as if I was watching a horror film come to life on stage – I’m not generally a fan of horror films, but there were moments throughout the play (which was roughly 1 hour 40 minutes long without an intermission) when I was truly startled. The dual realities – the overall setting at the psychiatric institution, wherein it’s clear that Mr. Cumming is the patient, and the setting  within the play’s narrative wherein Mr. Cumming inhabits all the characters – often blur and intertwine, adding layers to the madness with which the play has in spades. Of course, then there’s the added bonus that Mr. Cumming is himself of Scottish descent, and spoke in his native Scottish accent, which was refreshing and added to the authenticity to this adaptation.

Remaining performances as of May 26, 2013

The stage door experience was a fantastic one, and interestingly there were not as many people waiting at the stage door as I would have thought there would be. Alan Cumming was amazingly gracious, signing playbills and chatting with those waiting, looking each and every person in the eyes as they spoke. As expected, Mr. Cumming was only signing playbills and there would not be an opportunity to take a photo with him, and it was quasi amusing how the playbill signing process turned out. Thankfully, everyone waiting at the stage door behaved themselves as a line of sorts formed and each person held out their playbill for Mr. Cumming to sign, said a few words and moved aside for the next person – it was almost like we were all in line to meet a member of the royal family.

Alan Cumming at the stage door

I highly recommend seeing this play for those who wish to see a truly versatile actor tackle a bloody good Shakespeare tragedy.

Macbeth playbill signed