The Bard bequeathed his fans and scholars with tomes and tomes worth of questions to pick apart: Was “The Taming of the Shrew” a patriarchal play, or a criticism of the patriarchy? Should classrooms avoid “The Merchant of Venice” due to the stereotypes upheld by Shylock? Is all the world a planet, a stage, or both?
Perhaps the most pressing question Shakespeare left us to mull over: Was Lady Macbeth drunk, or what? No, not drunk on ambition -- just plain ol’ schnockered. Think about it: girl’s inhibitions were out the window, and her antics totally ruined a perfectly good dinner party.
Riffing on the idea that some of Shakespeare’s beloved characters, not to mention his captive audience, were almost definitely fans of drink, Off-Broadway theatre troupe Drunk Shakespeare performs one of his classic plays nightly, but only after one actor or actress takes a shot -- or five.
The buzzy performance is a mix of faithful deliveries of the Bard’s powerful lines and contemporary pop culture references (when Macduff’s family is murdered, his Netflix subscription is woefully terminated along with them). The result is a show that successfully makes a rich, heavy play accessible, while retaining the air -- and language -- of the originally version.
The group has been performing their wild take on “Macbeth” since 2014, and actress Caitlin Morris will soon complete her 200th show. Morris is a classically trained actress who recently discovered improv and other more contemporary realms of theatre; she prefers her whisky-fueled, babbling Lady Macbeth to more straight-laced takes on the character.
“People are so resistant to didactic theatre,” Morris said. “They’re like, this is a really serious play, it’s a tragedy and people die and I don’t want to go watch that. The idea of making it palatable, and fun, and interesting and sparkly, and also serving something true, and honest and weird and ephemeral ... it’s just nice to be able to combine them in this lovely mash-up."
The performance is sparkly, indeed; in a “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”-type twist, the actors call on audience members to mash-up character names with those of contemporary movie stars, and pull willing crowd members into its scenes.
Of the group’s improv-like nature, Morris said, “It’s a delightful challenge because it forces you to tune in, you can’t let your mind wander. Which is something that happens a lot, I think. It’s really easy for us to get distracted now, and so it’s nice to be in a situation where you have no option to.”
The actors also pause from their performances intermittently to explain what’s going on to less clued-in audience members. At one point, Macbeth shouts to the audience, “That was called an aside. Nailed it!” He’s also challenged by a fellow actor to perform one of his soliloquies in just two breaths, jokingly speeding up the text to a Sparknotes-length version.
“With Shakespeare I’ve always had the inclination to think, when I’m performing it, ‘I know that what I’m saying right now does not make sense in any realm to you people that I’m saying it to,’” Morris said. “There’s that instinct to want to break out and be like, 'aka ...' It’s fun to have that opportunity in the show because you’re encouraged to do that. When you have those moments that are like, ‘No one understands me!’ you can add, ‘In 2016 talk, what I’m saying is this.’”
Of course, the act of stripping Shakespeare’s original language down to more relatable dialogue has its decriers. Earlier this year, The Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced its aim to fund playwrights who will rejigger the original plays into modern English. In response, James Shapiro complained in a New York Times column that the Bard’s “bombast” has always been hard to parse out. The mood created by his soliloquies has always mattered more than clearly decipherable, extractable meaning.
Which is why Drunk Shakespeare’s choice to retain some of the original dialogue, but riff on it with contemporary references and a lively, goofy atmosphere is a great solution to the conundrum of accessibility versus the value of antiquity. When asked what Shakespeare would have thought of Drunk Shakespeare, Morris laughed.
“I think Billy would be front-row-center,” she said. “I think he’d be down to clown. The notion of what that [original] environment was ... it was so infused with pop culture and people were hammered and throwing fruit onstage. That environment feels so much more akin to Drunk Shakespeare than these fancy schmancy Broadway productions of Shakespeare that I’ve seen, where everyone has to behave and wear their finest gowns.”
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