O worthy fool! One that hath been a courtier,
And says, if ladies be but young and fair,
They have the gift to know it: and in his brain,
Which is as dry as the remainder biscuit
After a voyage, he hath strange places cramm’d
With observation, the which he vents
In mangled forms. O that I were a fool!
I am ambitious for a motley coat.
Oh true dat.
Shakespeare wasn’t meant for the stage.
Not at least the stage we know, with proscenium arches and playbills and shushing ushers and no one under 72 except the actors.
No, the Bard was meant for a bawdy night out, “with beers in bars rather than in dumb places with no beers,” as a thin actor yelled by way of introduction to a bar full of people looking to get shitfaced and hear some Shakespeare.
The Back Room Shakespeare Project is dedicated to bringing Shakespeare back where it belongs, presenting the classic works with the rowdy disregard Willie intended.
Once a month or so-ish, a group of serious local professional actors gather. They’re in it “for the love of the game, not the chance for glory,” stakeholder and founder Kelley Ristow said by email.
The actors learn their lines, rehearse the play once and then a few days later perform it in a bar, for drunks, with no director.
The effect is taut and raucous, with actors aiming for “velocity, clarity and courage” rather than pitch-perfect dusty readings of centuries-old rhyme.
In Monday’s “As You Like It,” Kevin Matthew Reyes’ version of Charles the court wrestler appeared as a howling, grandstanding luchador. Alex Weisman’s Silvius showed his undying ardor for Phoebe by ripping off his button-up to reveal an iron-on T-shirt of her face. Tiffany Topol’s version of Rosalind-as-a-man was a kicked Yankees cap and some broseph handling of a scotch.
Melancholy Jaques listened to Tears for Fears.
But it wasn’t all gimmick and charm. It wasn’t all sly winks at the Shakespearean drag-based plot twists that would make “Three’s Company” writers shake their heads in disbelief.
Moment after moment, the cast effortlessly thread the needle from silly to sublime. They went from modern cheek to Elizabethan high drama. Yes, it’s silly how Rosalind and Orlando expressed their love, through transvestism and couplets, but the actors made you believe that love existed. The wrestling was intense and gasping, luchador mask aside.
One example of this dance from the many many many that filled this performance came during the play’s most famous speech.
“All the world’s a stage,” Thom Cox’s Jaques began, the mood and audience darkening. “And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.”
The comedic came back as Cox/Jaques took us through the scenes in a person’s life. He acted out the “mewling and puking” of the infant, the “fair round belly with good capon lined” of middle age. The audience laughed along.
“Last scene of all,” Jaques said, the mood changing yet again. “That ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness.”
A moment. The formerly chanting, cheering, 21st-century w00ting audience waited, breath held for 400-year-old words. I saw a woman across the bar from me grip her lover’s hand.
“And mere oblivion,” he said. “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
Silence. Smatters of applause, a crowd that came looking for novelty touched and amazed by what they found instead.