Laura Kolb (Baruch College)
About two-thirds of the way through the Back Room Shakespeare Project’s first production in New York, a one-night-only performance of Twelfth Night, one of the actors threw back her head and bellowed, “LINE!” Before the company’s prompter could supply the missing words, another actor in the scene shouted back: “Oh! I think I said a line from a later scene!” The prompter chimed in, the scene reset itself, and things continued smoothly—which is to say, frenetically, with comic exuberance and occasional improvisation.
Founded in 2011 and based in Chicago, the Back Room Shakespeare Project puts on plays according to a simple set of rules: “Serious Actors. No Director. One rehearsal. In a bar.” The rationale behind this is a kind of loose and cheeky claim to original practices: the company notes that Shakespeare’s troupe lacked anything like a modern director, and had a rehearsal process very different from the six-to-ten-weeks of intensive polishing that leads up to contemporary professional productions. But the real benefit of putting on a play in the backroom of a bar, with a young and energetic troupe who’ve had a few hours of rehearsal, is the palpable sense of shared discovery among the cast, and the unpredictable exchanges between the players and their audience.
The actors seem to have done a lot in their one rehearsal. They have an impressive command of the script, they clearly trust one another, and each of the characters is deftly if broadly sketched. Moreover, the troupe takes full advantage of the festive atmosphere of the performance’s setting: in this case, the backroom at Soda Bar in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, where audience members were packed in wall to wall, sitting on couches and folding chairs and standing against walls and in the bathroom doorways.
At Soda Bar, the crowd quickly becomes part of the play, supplying witnesses, voices, and props as needed. When Viola arrives at Olivia’s home, she asks the people around her “Which is the lady of the house?” while Olivia and her attendants hold up “veils”—copies of People magazine—over their faces. When Toby, Andrew and Feste drunkenly sing together, Feste replaces the original text’s catch (“that’s a song,” Andrew helpfully comments to a woman perched on the arm of a couch) with Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-charmed life.” Incited by Toby and Andrew, the audience joins in. When Maria fails to quell the merriment, Malvolio turns up, chastising her as well as the singers. She looks around, grabs a full beer off a nearby table and, as the steward upbraids her with increasing fury, chugs the entire thing—an (unrehearsed?) act of defiance. “Whose beer was that?” one of the cast members asks a moment later, underscoring the fact that the audience members (and their drinks) are part of the scene, and part of the world of festivity and tipsiness that Olivia’s steward cannot control.
What’s gained, in Back Room Shakespeare’s approach, is a real sense of the ways in which the Shakespeare’s characters—like the actors who here portray them—have to make things up as they go along. Twelfth Night is full of improvised schemes and speeches, and the improvisatory nature of the production itself highlights this. Viola-Cesario is not allowed to speak her prepared speech to Olivia, though she has “taken great pains to con it.” Instead—something I’ve never really noticed before—she ends up having to make up love poetry on the spot: “[I’d] make me a willow cabin at your gate/ And call upon my soul within the house; /Write loyal cantons of contemned love/ And sing them loud even in the dead of night…” The speech profoundly impacts both its onstage audience, and its speaker. Olivia holds her hands to her cheeks and, smitten, whispers, “Oh my God,” while Viola sinks to the ground, half-embarrassed and half-enchanted at the words tumbling out of her mouth. There are other improvisations, large and small: Maria’s scheme against Malvolio, Toby’s arranging for Andrew to challenge Cesario; Sir Topas’ visit to Feste’s darkened room, all of which here appear haphazard and chancy and full of surprising turns. Even less obviously theatrical moments come alive as sites of improvisation. Antonio’s offer of his purse to a reluctant Sebastian, for instance, is here full of suspense. We see the sailor struggling to find the most beautiful and forceful words, in the moment, to persuade the young man to accept his courtesy and the love that goes along with it.
There are losses, too. Twelfth Night opens in grief and ends with the threat of revenge; here, the pain laced throughout Shakespeare’s text is minimized or missing. This Twelfth Night is all sunshine and no shadows. This is nowhere more clear than in Feste’s songs, which in the text provide a counter-point to the intensity of feeling and action onstage: they are about the ephemerality of love, the way life’s intensity and vividness fades over time, the steady quiet background rain that raineth every day (no matter what small, bright human dramas play out centerstage). This Feste, by contrast, wanders around Illyria with his guitar, inciting sing-a-longs of 90s hits. But that’s the nature of the show—it’s immediate and joyful, far more about the occasion than the intricacies of the text.
Late in the action, as mistaken identities and theatrical tricks begin to pile up, Feste strums and sings the chorus for 4 Non Blonde’s, “What’s up?”: “Hey, yeah, yeah… I said hey, what’s going on?” He looks up quizzically and adds, “In this play?” Everybody laughs. Though the clown’s sadness is lost, he becomes a bridge between action and audience, simultaneously reminding us of the sheer ridiculousness of Shakespeare’s comedy and drawing us into its world.