Guo: Drunk Shakespeare (despite "budget cuts")

by Clara Guo | 1/25/17 2:10am

How many of Shakespeare’s works have you read?

Definitely “Romeo and Juliet.” Probably “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Twelfth Night.”

Maybe you read Shakespeare for fun — because you fell in love with his imagination and made-up words that have now become commonplace. Most likely, you read Shakespeare because you had to read Shakespeare. Maybe you, like me, used SparkNotes to discern the meaning, with Shakespeare’s original words on the left and the modern translations on the right. Or maybe you just read the summaries on SparkNotes until you realized that your teachers inserted direct quotes into exams and asked you who said what. (Yep — that was also me).

I’ve never been a huge fan of reading Shakespeare. I’m actually quite terrible at understanding, let alone analyzing, works written before 1990. I much prefer the crime and thriller genre — easy to critique, fun to reread. That being said, recently, I’ve been trying to branch out and read more literary fiction (Fun fact: it took me three months to finish the Man Booker-shortlisted novel “A Little Life,” because it was so heartbreaking that I could only read 50 pages or so before bursting into tears).

Anyway, thanks in part to my underdeveloped Shakespearian analytical skills, I’ve only read three or four of his plays. So when I first heard of “Drunk Shakespeare,” I was: (1) excited for an opportunity to expand my quite limited knowledge of Shakespeare, (2) skeptical of the actual drunken level of the actors and (3) curious as to how the creators and writers of the show would pare down the complexity of Shakespeare into a one-hour plot that maintained the integrity of the original work.

I quickly concluded that the only way to satisfy my curiosity and answer my questions was to attend what is famously dubbed “Sh*t-faced Shakespeare.”

Over junior summer, my roommate and I took an Uber to Laugh Boston in the Seaport District and found ourselves sitting in a corner, stage right. We each ordered a beer — after all, if an actor was going to be drinking, then we should most definitely join in on the fun.

The host wore a top hat, a black vest with nothing underneath and black slacks. He handed two audience members a mini gong and a horn, which could be used once anytime in the middle of the show to pause the acting and force the one drunk actor to chug.

The play of the night was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which, unsurprisingly, I had not (and still have not) read. There were five characters: Hermia, Lysander, Helena, Demetrius and Puck (plus an invisible sixth who “unfortunately could not be there because of budget cuts”). That night, Lysander was the inebriated cast member.

The play was, simply put, hilarious. Lysander was drunk before the show even began. At one point, he walked onstage with a plastic bag half full of tortilla chips and defended himself, weaponless, against Demetrius wielding a large foam sword. There was yelling and running and even more stumbling. Half of the fight was fought on the ground, littered with crushed chips and spilled beer.

Puck was by far my favorite. One hundred percent sober, he skillfully combined fine articulation during familiar monologues with sexual confidence displayed by dry-humping “sleeping” actors as well as willing audience members. His humor stemmed from a dichotomy of trained sophistication and crude absurdity.

My roommate and I laughed nonstop until our stomachs hurt and our mouths were permanently glued into smiles. The play ended much too soon.

A few weeks later, my sister Emma visited me in Boston. I took her to the same “Sh*t-faced Shakespeare” event with different actors and actresses performing the same play. This time, Demetrius was drunk.

I wonder what Shakespeare would have said if someone had told him, “In a few hundred years, your plays are going to be simplified, an actor is going to be ridiculously drunk and your well-crafted subtlety will fly out the window.” I imagine he wouldn’t be terribly offended. The definition of comedy changes depending on context — and it just so happens that Drunk Shakespeare is one manifestation of what current society deems humorous.

I wonder, too, if I will ever read more Shakespeare. Perhaps in a few years (or, most likely, a few decades), I’ll find a copy of a famous play online. Maybe I’ll lie down in bed and slowly pick my way through words I don’t know and references I don’t understand. Likely I’ll instead choose a novel categorized as literary fiction.

I realize now that my concern about maintaining the integrity of Shakespeare’s original play was misplaced. The goal of Drunk Shakespeare was not to accurately depict “Midsummer Night’s Dream” or instill in its audience an appreciation of the classics; rather, the goal was comedic escape, allowing the actors to press pause on our realities.

So, to conclude: (1) I learned nothing new about Shakespearian works; (2) the actor was convincingly hammered; and (3) humor-driven escape trumped historical accuracy.