Presented by Magnificent Bastard Productions
Based on the play by William Shakespeare
Review by Danielle Rosvally
(Somerville, MA) After thoroughly enjoying Magnificent Bastard’s original UK cast in what was supposedly a limited Boston run (you can read my review of that show here), I eagerly awaited my chance to see the brand new addition to the Shit-Faced Shakespeare family. You see, after the original UK ensemble hopped back across the pond, a Boston group took up the torch for Shit-faced Shakespeare, and has been carrying the Midsummer Night’s Dream banner ever since. Recently, they announced two exciting additions to the company: a new space (Midsummer has moved to Laugh Boston), and a new play: Much Ado About Nothing.
I was particularly interested to see how they managed to take a piece like Much Ado and shit-faceify it. The drunken Shakespeare genre, a new vogue on the Shakespeare scene, depends upon several facets for a given performance to work: a powerful ensemble, a play that lends itself well to this powerful ensemble, a hilarious shit-faced actor, and the hilarious shit-faced actor constantly displayed in a prominent role. With Much Ado, the Bastards made the odd choice to cast Hero as the drunken part. I say “odd” because anyone who knows the play will also know that Hero is offstage for the majority of it, speaks very few lines, and does nearly nothing to move the action along. This is not exactly the character upon whom an audience may focus for the duration of the play in order to witnessed the promised shit-faced shenanigans.
In addition to this, Much Ado actually requires a fair amount of straight, heavy acting to pull off. While this cast was undoubtedly talented, the chosen medium wasn’t exactly a recipe for success to showcase this kind of thespian chops. The audience was there to see schtick, not genuine emotion; and Much Ado lacks much of the quirky comic mishaps that Midsummer boasts. As a result, the “serious” moments seemed stilted and unfortunate necessities to the story rather than anything important. The audience tolerated them, and the actors did them, but everyone knew what we were really waiting for.
What is interesting about the piece is how it seems shit-faced on a meta-level. Because of the yopping and chopping the company had to do in order to get the complicated tapestry of Much Ado About Nothing with its multiple convergent story arcs and ungainly cast of characters down to a neat six actors and sixty minutes, the story emerged much like it had been through the wringer of Drunk History. Don Pedro and Don John were elided; the characters combined to be one. Dogberry and the watch were cut entirely. Margaret was played by one poor unsuspecting audience member. The major plot points of Much Ado remained, but they were confused, confounded, and half-remembered; drunkenly told through the antics of six energetic actors. It was an elegant and creative solution to the problem of telling a convoluted story in a pared-down fashion and I, actually, enjoyed it. But audiences should be warned: don’t go to this show expecting to see Shakespeare; and don’t leave believing that you’re ready for Jeopardy. You might as well take a Wikipedia plot summary written by a middle-schooler, stop reading about halfway down the page, and sub in the last half of a plot summary of a random episode of Blackadder (season 2).
The only truly negative thing I have to say about the piece is about one unfortunately unsafe sword fight towards its tail end. Thankfully, the drunk actor was not a participant, though by the look of the fight she might as well have been. In a theatre as small as Davis Square, there’s simply no margin for error whilst fighting with swords, and unfortunately the reckless abandon of these combatants made me fear not just for their safety, but for that of the first row of the audience. Vomit backsplash is one thing; being hit with a shard of a shattered epee blade is something completely different.
If you do go see Shit-faced Shakespeare, and I do think you should, I would choose Midsummer over Much Ado. The zany, wacky antics are definitely a bit better grounded in that piece. You also wouldn’t do wrong to imbibe at least one drink yourself at the luxurious pre-show bar; I’m reasonably certain that both of these shows get far funnier with alcohol in your system.