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

Advertisements

A Skirmish of Wit: Thoughts on Much Ado About Nothing – June 4, 2014

In continuing my (inconsistent) quest to experience (most things) Shakespeare (despite missing both Twelfth Night and Richard III last season), the next opportunity presented itself via the annual summer tradition Shakespeare in the Park. This year’s plays being Much Ado About Nothing and King Lear, the former one of my favorite comedies and the latter one of the few tragedies I have yet to read (though I know the basic plot). As mentioned in previous posts, Shakespeare in the Park is an outdoor event at the Delacorte Theater, located on the Upper West Side, presented by the Public Theater, wherein tickets are free for the public and obtainable via virtual lottery or simply waiting on the standby line in the park (tickets can be reserved with a donation to the Public Theater). Performing live theater outdoors is a time-honored tradition dating back many, many centuries, and was, in fact how Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed at the Globe Theater in London, where weather conditions impact any given performance.

Shakespeare in the Park 2014

But I digress.

Performances of Much Ado About Nothing began June 3rd, and it was by sheer luck I obtained my ticket via the virtual lottery (the second time I attempted to do so). So onward to the Park I went, the weather yesterday being overcast yet breezy (with rain expected late in the evening). The play deals with the impact of the assumptions made upon overheard conversations upon two couples and the consequences that eventually lead to a happy ending expected in a Shakespeare comedy. Moments of levity and drama intertwine as one couple is brought together and the other torn asunder through misdirection and misinformation. The trend of adapting and presenting most Shakespearean plays (whether on stage or on film) is to set them in different locale and in more contemporary time periods, dress, etc.; this production is set in the place and time period in which the play is set. The set design is of the exterior of an Italian villa, complete with two garden patches and a small fountain wherein the cast wander through, as the play unfolded.

The cast was fantastic, though at times it seemed they were just reciting lines (as last night was only their second performance, that vibe is understandable, as the cast will no doubt find their own footing and inflections as the run continues). Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe as the sparring Benedict and Beatrice (both of whom I had seen a few years ago in Seminar) imbued the right balance of animosity and tenderness; Brian Stokes Mitchell was astounding as Don Pedro, a commanding presence on any stage, and Pedro Pascal (probably best known as [the late] Oberyn Martell on the epic TV series Game of Thrones) was equally amazing as Don John, bastard brother to Don Pedro. My initial introduction to Much Ado came from the 1993 film adaptation, which boasted its own stellar cast, and while it has been many years since I watched the film, it was difficult for me to not think of those performances while watching the play live on stage: to wit, Jack Cutmore-Scott’s performance as the lovelorn Claudio resembled that of Robert Sean Leonard from the film (and from my vantage point from the left rear side of the theater, the physical resemblance was similar).

This was another instance where I did not wait by the stage door for the actors to emerge, as I learned that there isn’t a singular stage door area from which the actors emerge (I was told that the actors would leave the theater via any of the theater’s four separate entrances/exits); also, it had begun to rain at that point (thankfully immediately after the show ended) so I wasn’t in a mood to patrol each exit on the off-chance I might see any of the actors. Nevertheless, the Park is still quite lovely at night, with lampposts dotting the various trails, illuminating the trees surrounding the Park. Much Ado About Nothing runs from now through July 6th, with King Lear running from July 22nd through August 17th. I do recommend seeing this production (and I might attend another performance later in the run to gauge the production as a whole). All in all, ’twas a fantastic way to spend an evening in Central Park: nothing beats live theater under the stars (or overcast sky).

Much Ado playbill

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

A Pair of Star-Crossed Lovers: Thoughts on Romeo and Juliet – August 31, 2013

So as summer comes to a close, so does my (apparent) Summer of Seeing Shakespearean Tragedies, which started (interestingly enough) with the tragicomic pastiche The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady, a show I sincerely hope has a future in an off-Broadway (or even at a Broadway) venue. This inventive musical mash-up soon led to the more serious undertaking of the Bard’s work, first off with the brilliant (nearly) one man Broadway production of Macbeth starring Alan Cumming, followed (quite) closely with an off-off Broadway production of Hamlet at the Seeing Place Theater, which was equally brilliant. Of course, logic would have dictated that in this Shakespeare binge, I should have made an attempt to attend the Shakespeare in the Park productions of The Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labor Lost but I hadn’t; nevertheless, I have started to make amends for this lapse in absorbing all things Shakespeare, starting with an early preview of Romeo and Juliet, currently playing at the Richard Rodgers Theater for a limited run through January 12, 2014.

Romeo and Juliet marquee

This tragedy of a pair of star-crossed lovers from rival families is undoubtedly a familiar tale, having been adapted countless times on film, television, and on stage (most notably West Side Story); I’m also quite sure in saying that this play has been read and studied (and re-read and re-studied) during the course of an academic tenure, so it’s pretty safe to say everyone knows the story, or is at least familiar with the story (and can quote some of the famous lines / monologues). This adaptation is set in modern times and in modern dress (Romeo enters the stage on a real motorcycle), and adds a racial element in its casting, as those in the House of Montague are white and those of the House of Capulet are black, with the exception of Nurse, who is white. This difference in skin color is not commented upon during the production (as the play adheres to the original Shakespearean text) though the difference does add credence to the tension that exists between the two families.

Two Houses

The set design is sparse, with an assemblage of chairs, various prop pieces, and a movable three-piece set that serves as the back wall; of course, there is the levitating set piece that represents Juliet’s balcony. The lighting and sound design (there is ambient music from a lone cello and percussion throughout) is striking and dynamic, and adds urgency to the tension that occurs throughout the play. The cast was astounding, especially leads Orlando Bloom (in his Broadway debut) and Condola Rashad as the titular Romeo and Juliet, who were both passionate and nuanced in their respective roles, and did have a good amount of chemistry together. Other standouts were Brent Carver as Friar Laurence and Jayne Houdyshell as Nurse, both of whom were sympathetic enablers / accomplices (depending on how you interpret their actions) to the young lovers.

Romeo and Juliet cast list

The stage door experience was a good one, and as it was the first matinee performance, and the first two-performance day (the production had started previews earlier in the week), it was not known whether or not Orlando Bloom (who was clearly the box office draw for this production) would be emerging from the stage door to greet the fans who would undoubtedly be waiting. I was mildly surprised that the stage door area was not teeming with people – as there are photos from after the first preview performance when the entire block was closed off due to the phalanx of fans waiting at the stage door (most of whom I suspect had not seen the show and were just waiting outside to see Mr. Bloom). Anyway, the majority of the cast did emerge from the stage door (and I managed to secure a spot near the stage door entrance), and multitudes of cheers erupted when they did, the loudest came when Mr. Bloom came out (which was a lovely gesture, though I’m sure he felt obliged to do so, as he is the most recognizable name in the cast, generally speaking). He was lovely and gracious to those at the stage door, though as he was signing playbills, it was made known by the theater’s security guard that Mr. Bloom would just be signing playbills and not posing with anyone (though we were free to take pictures of him), which is understandable, as everyone (myself included) would want a photo with him. Thankfully everyone at the stage door was well-behaved and courteous to one another (I’ve had experiences when this was not the case, and people behind me would push ahead to get a better glance at the actors).

Orlando Bloom

All in all, it was a good production, though I’m probably not the best judge of such things, as my viewership of Shakespeare on stage is limited. I do recommend seeing this production, as it’s rare (at least to my knowledge) that this play is revived on Broadway. No doubt, I’ll be increasing my Shakespeare viewership this fall, when the upcoming productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III by the Shakespeare’s Globe are set to play in repertory at the Belasco Theater, with an all-male cast (adhering to the tradition set forth in Shakespeare’s time).

For more information about this production can be found on the official site: http://www.romeoandjulietbroadway.com/

Romeo and Juliet signed playbill

To Thine Own Self Be True: Thoughts on Hamlet – June 8, 2013

Around this time last year, (give or take a few hours) I started this theatre blog and wrote about One Man, Two Guvnors, the hilarious play I saw the day before the Tony Awards; along the way I recounted my experiences about the various shows and theatrical events that happened within the past year and recollections of the shows I had seem prior to my starting the blog. Over the past year, I have seen amazing plays and musicals (both on and off-Broadway), and have met a plethora of amazing actors and prolific playwrights, all of whom I am in awe for the talent and genius they share with countless people on a daily basis.

So here we are once more, on the day before the 2013 Tony Awards, I attended another play, though this time it was an off-off Broadway production of Hamlet, currently playing at the Seeing Place Theater in repertory with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, by Tom Stoppard. It is interesting (and purely coincidental) that my last two theatrical experiences were of the Shakespearian kind (and two of the Bard’s most famous and most adapted tragedies), after years of not seeing any live stage productions of Shakespeare – though technically speaking, I had seen the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), which strives to recount all of Shakespeare’s plays (and sonnets) in one evening, so that kinda counts, right?

But I digress.

My second (non-comical) encounter with Shakespeare came about through my good friend Kelley, a Shakespeare devotee and an ardent proponent of off-Broadway and regional theater companies; she brought to my attention the Seeing Place Theater and this production of Hamlet, another play that I’m sure every student has read (or was made to read) at some point in their educational careers. Among Shakespeare’s plays (at least the ones I’ve read) Hamlet was my favorite (well, at least among the tragedies) – again, like most students, I had read the play in high school and had watched several of the film and television adaptations.

Hamlet

This adaptation of the Bard’s tragedy about murder, ambition and madness in the “rotten state” of Denmark was set in a sparse space with the actors adorning contemporary attire, and included the use of firearms in addition to the usual rapiers. The theater space itself was quite small, as the production was at the Sargent Theater located on the 4th floor of a building next to a police precinct in Hell’s Kitchen. This production also boasted a cast that played their parts with much subtlety, which was a refreshing change from the sometimes over-heightened range of emotions displayed in many of the film adaptations I have seen. Kudos to this cast of twelve (some doubling up on the minor roles) for their brilliant delivery of speeches and lines that have been recited by countless actors in the past, and bringing forth a new dimension in the intent of those familiar lines.

The Cast of Hamlet

The Cast of Hamlet

Standouts among the cast included Brandon Walker, as the titular prince and Erin Cronican as the doomed Ophelia. Mr. Walker’s portrayal of the titular Danish prince was dramatic and not melodramatic – his anger was understated, and his sorrow was understandable. I had noticed throughout the production that Mr. Walker was sniffling almost consistently, which at first I found to be a bit distracting, but had dismissed it, thinking that perhaps he had a cold or was suffering for allergies and was playing through his illness. It was only afterwards when various members of the cast were chatting with other theatergoers in the lobby that I overheard Mr. Walker say that his consistent sniffling (which another patron had thought alluded to this Hamlet being a drug user) was simply an affectation (and a brilliant one at that, emphasizing just enough the grief Hamlet feels throughout the play). Ms. Cronican’s portrayal of Ophelia was brilliant – her Ophelia was not an overly hysterical, lovesick girl whose passion for Hamlet was her only reason for living; her descent to madness was gradual and believable, and heartbreaking to witness. Also notable were Jason Wilson, Alan Altschuler and Janice Hall as Claudius, Polonius and Gertrude, respectively, all of whom portrayed their respective characters as three-dimensional people and not the stereotypical villain, the loquacious accomplice and doting mother (again respectively) – they all kept their emotions in check for much of the play, letting it fester and manifest itself at the right moment, so that their outbursts are unexpected and effective.

This production is well worth seeing for its subtle performances from a brilliant company of actors – I’m not quite sure if I’ll get around to seeing their Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, a clever pairing of plays, as the actors whose characters are in both plays play those characters in both plays (I do hope that made some semblance of sense), though I would be very interested in seeing it, if only to see how this dozen strong company tackle Stoppard’s take on these iconic characters.

Hamlet playbill

For more information about the Seeing Place Theater (and dates and times for both plays), please visit their website: http://www.seeingplacetheater.com/