A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shit-faced Shakespeare) @ the Spider House, Austin, 2016Comedy

  • Michael Saenger
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shit-faced Shakespeare, Magnificent Bastards Productions, at the Spider House, Austin, Texas. January 22, 2016
Reviewed by Michael Saenger, Southwestern University

Photo credit: Lara Woolfson/Studio Nouveau

A preparatory note: random numbers are surprisingly difficult to generate.  Computer programs often need them, especially in games and in encryption software, but computers and mathematics have a hard time generating randomness.  The old fashioned way to generate a random number, and this goes all the way back to the 1970’s, is to take a long numerical calculation, and sample a digit somewhere in the middle; those are pseudo-random numbers.  Another option is to reach outside of the computer world–to find a source for truer randomness.  That could be anything from a measurement of radioactive decay to the precise temperature in a room.  What you do when you roll dice is surprisingly hard for a computer to duplicate.
The Shit-faced Shakespeare experience, as it were, needs some translation, notwithstanding the fact that everything takes place in English.  To begin with, the Magnificent Bastards play in a space that is as much a rowdy bar as it is a theater.  In Austin they played at the Spider House, and there was a freewheeling feel from the start.  It must also be clarified that, although they announce a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one should probably be able to deduce from the title of the company that we will not exactly get that.  In fact, they only staged a few scenes from the play.
But that’s clearly not the point.  The small company runs on the premise that one of the five Shakespeare actors onstage is, to put it politely, drunk.  They accomplish this by having that actor drink a large amount of alcohol before the performance, and more during the show.  Which brings us back to the randomness issue.

Photo credit: Lara Woolfson/Studio Nouveau

This might not exactly be high-brow Shakespeare, but it is an interesting and compelling show.  In fact, Shakespeare is in effect the straight man in this rebellious performance.  The disruption that a drunk person causes to a show accounts for a randomness that is the real anchor of this show.  What ensues is a lot of improv, and a lot of inside talk about a performance.  The effect is surprisingly inviting.  The whole idea of staging stage-talk, ranging from broadcasting actors’ inside jokes to TV shows and movies that focus on stagecraft, from the Canadian Slings and Arrows to the heartbreaking The Dresser, is becoming its own genre.  These peeks behind the curtain offer the general audience a “look behind the scenes” at Shakespeare actors, but this is a tricky offering.  As often as this is delightfully gossipy or elegaic, it can also be off-putting and insular.  The problem is partly that, while a general audience do often desire to see a show undone, or to see behind the scenes, it is hard to communicate the incestuous randomness of an actual show, so what we often get is something more like a pseudo-random number, a planned confession from actors playing actors.
Shakespeare surely dealt with plenty of drunk customers, and likely a few drunk actors. More to the point he wrote and thrived in an atmosphere that embraced randomness of all kinds.  Furthermore, honorific Shakespeare in a stiffly performed and rigidly classical performance (punctuated by a well-timed gag that has no relationship to the text) often has as little do with with Shakespeare as Cliff’s Notes does, asking people pay for a kind of deeply empty delivery of praise to the ghost of the Bard.  There’s room, then, for a provocative iconoclasm, a random attack on a play that still allows a play to happen.

Photo credit: Lara Woolfson/Studio Nouveau

That’s not what this is, but it’s a satisfying and intense show.  The very gamely grand Daniel Berger-Jones ably ran the show. The environment was ribald and dirty from the start, and a thoroughly drunk Lysander (Saul Marron) made it quite clear that he was as interested in a woman in the front row as he was in either Hermia (Beth-Louise Priestly) or Helena (Stacey Norris).  We also discovered that he’s a bit of a maudlin drunk, prone to self-pitying reflections on his own history of romantic rejection and his comparisons of the play to Tinder.  The other actors gamely held onto the scenes, trying to maintain the bare premise that this is a Shakespeare play, while handling a Lysander who was often unable to enunciate, remain in character, or indeed stand.  What he was able to do, however, was compliment the actresses on their stage tumbles and compare his career to where it should be. Indeed the only drag on the show was the somewhat more labored planned gags of Puck (Lewis Ironside).  When you see what true randomness is, it’s hard to laugh at its simulacrum.
No harm done.  And a lot of fun was had, and it was refreshing to hear Puck’s question, “Shall we their fond pageant see?” met with a resounding “Yes.”


Michael Saenger

Author: Michael Saenger

Michael Saenger is Associate Professor of English at Southwestern University in Texas. He is the author of two books, The Commodification of Textual Engagements in the English Renaissance (Ashgate, 2006), and Shakespeare and the French Borders of English (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and editor of Interlinguicity, Internationality and Shakespeare (McGill-Queen's UP, 2014), and has recently published articles in Shakespeare Survey and English Text Construction. Teaching and research have been his passion for some time, but he got into Shakespeare by performing plays as an actor, and he has directed and acted in a variety of plays through the years.