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Thus does Macduff, in Drunk Shakespeare’s gleefully anarchic rendition of the Scottish Play, announce to his arch-rival that he is “not of woman born.” It’s hardly the language of the Bard: but it serves a vital purpose that doubles as Drunk Shakespeare’s ethos: to translate the seeming high-brow qualities of Shakespeare into a night at the theatre anyone can enjoy.
That it succeeds in doing this so throughly is both Drunk Shakespeare’s biggest weakness and its biggest strength. At its best, Drunk Shakespeare (so titled because one member of the five-strong cast gets smashed before performing one of Shakespeare’s better-known plays; tonight it was Julia Giolzetti in Macbeth, stumbling Banquo and assorted minor characters while several sheets to the wind) is a high-energy improv show with enough references to Shakespeare’s original canon to give the night a vague sort of structure. Characters interrupt one another with “drunk points of order” – challenging each other to say their lines to the tune of Disney songs, to drink vile concoctions, to replace all references to blood in the text to references to fecal matter (“Blood will have blood”, takes on new and more vivid imagery), and – when necessary – recite all 44 US presidents in order in under 25 seconds.
The cast does this brilliantly. Their energy and rapport is flawless; they clearly know one another well enough to feel comfortable throwing challenges out of left field (Lady Macbeth abruptly finds herself commanded to replace one of her signature monologues with one from Twelfth Night) while ensuring their cast mates will always be there to catch them. The gaiety is infectious, and for much of its 90-minute run, Drunk Shakespeare is thoroughly enjoyable: a strong comedy show that carries off its frenetic energy with aplomb. The “drunk actor” premise which starts the show becomes almost unnecessary by a few scenes in: the cast is all equally ready, willing, and able to inject octane into the proceedings.
But at times, despite the performance of Macbeth that is ostensibly going on before us (with frequent and largely enjoyable interruption), the evening skews too much towards the Drunk portion of the title. The cast seems to assume that the audience knows far less Shakespeare than many audience members (according to a top-of-the-evening) straw poll actually do, and caters to people who know none at all. The “inside” or text-specific jokes are relatively few on the ground (a meditation on the sheer uselessness of Ross as a character comes as a welcome exception) – punchlines are more likely to be grounded in a knowledge of pop culture icons (the “weird sisters’ are hinted to be Kardashians) than in knowledge of the show itself.
This is a particular shame because – on those rare occasions that the cast does choose to play a scene “straight” – they’re invariably very good: as Macbeth, Whit Leyenberger brings a Brando-esque intensity to the role that makes me curious to see him in a more traditional production. The actors uniformly excel at speaking (and even slurring) verse: managing to make the emotional relationships onstage clear even without the help of expositional extemporizing. The actors all clearly love and know the text, and, at times, Drunk Shakespeare feels as though it is shying away from making full use of that potential: keeping its comedy and tragedy unnecessarily apart.
Still, Drunk Shakespeare is well-worth seeing as a comedy show. A little more Shakespeare, though, and “thou wouldst be great.”
Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton is the Arts Editor at Litro NY. You can find her writing at National Geographic, Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic, and more.