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Drunk Shakespeare

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Drunk Shakespeare cast
Photo by Jenny Anderson

As last season's Broadway production of Shakespeare's Globe's Twelfth Night reminded everyone lucky enough to see it, it's not impossible for one of The Bard's works to be silly and sublime at the same time. But that Mark Rylance–starring mounting was straight, with its all-male cast and ultra-retro design about traditional as you could get, and of a comedy—in other words, a perfect, or perhaps merely sensible, mating of play and presentation. Swing too far in the other direction and you get something like Drunk Shakespeare, which is now running at Quinn's Bar Upstairs. Silly it definitely is; sublime... well, not quite.

The idea behind it is, if you'll forgive the pun, intoxicating: Give one member of a small group of actors far too much to drink—for real—then set the whole group loose on one of the greatest works of the English-language theatre, in this case Macbeth. How exactly a tragedy demanding verbal and emotional precision can fuse with one performer physically incapable of providing either promises to be a fascinating study in disruptive contrasts, paired with the potential of making us look anew at the arts of both writing and acting.

It doesn't quite work out that way. At least at the performance I attended, rather than letting the concept speak for and sell itself, the five cast members (out of a rotating ensemble of ten) were determined to kick it over the goal line in any and every way possible. This included "points of order" and "drunk points of order," in which the sober and inebriated performers respectively could change the rules at any time, thus ensuring "anything could happen."

But the results, which included shouting an approving expletive whenever the (from-the-audience) monarch was referenced to forcing Ross to enter each scene in the guise of a current modern comedian seem not just not spontaneous, but rather rigidly rehearsed. And because everyone was so programmatically unhinged, the impact of having one of them be forever under the influence was lost. Only a couple of flubbed lines separated the drunk I saw, Kristin Friedlander, from the rest of her cast mates.

Factor in a hand puppet, a climactic Macbeth-versus-Macduff dance duel, plenty of references to triple, quadruple, and quintuple casting, and more, and a lot of the levity comes across as mighty forced. A couple of incidents did strike me as genuinely unplanned, but as the first involved forcing an audience member to chug an entire glass of Guinness and the second making another audience member take off his shirt, I'm not sure whether I can recommend that you hope for similar things to happen should you attend the show.

Though the evening does, however obliquely, raise an interesting question about how reverently we should take Shakespeare's works today, its contributions to the art are otherwise negligible, in terms of interpretation or performances. Director David Hudson keeps everyone in line, and it's certainly not that the actors are untalented—Friedlander and Louis Sallan had an intriguing chemistry that might make them a worthwhile pair of Macbeths in a real take on the show, Damiyr Shuford was an imposing Macduff, and Kate Gunther a crack, natural jokester in a variety of secondary roles—but this self-described "drinking club with a Shakespeare problem" has, well, a Shakespeare problem.

The good news is that it doesn't have a comedy problem: This quintet had no trouble keeping the laughs frequent, buoyant, and loud for 90 solid minutes, and on some level, that's all that matters. Still, they're shallow laughs about things unrelated to what Shakespeare wrote, and it's tough not to think that Drunk Shakespeare would be even more interesting if it worked within the established framework rather than against it. Rylance and his company, like the great acting troupes can manage, got laughs while still digging deep. Drunk Shakespeare is perhaps a little too content getting its own without digging at all.

Drunk Shakespeare
Through June 8
Quinn's Bar Upstairs, 356 West 44th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues.
Tickets and performance schedule at (765) 537-8650

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