Dec 17 2009

Shakespeare Exploded – the good, the bad, and the creepy

Published by at 4:15 pm under reviews,shakespeare,sketchbook

For those who aren’t aware, the American Repertory Theater is in the midst (or really toward the end) of a program they call “Shakespeare Exploded.” I previously blogged about the reading of Robert Brustein’s play Mortal Terror, but that reading series is the sideline to the three main shows, which are: The Donkey Show, a dance club musical remix of Midsummer Night’s Dream; Best of Both Worlds, a gospel / R&B musical version of Winter’s Tale, and Sleep No More, a sort of… well, not a play, and not Macbeth, but… more on that in a moment.

I bought tickets to all three shows, and I’ve now seen Sleep No More and Best of Both Worlds. Below the cut is my full review, with some mild spoilers and more detailed advice. Here is the summary: unless you are easily freaked out AND really don’t like art that freaks you out, DROP WHAT YOU ARE DOING AND GO SEE SLEEP NO MORE. Bring someone with you, but be aware that you may be separated in the course of the evening. Also you will be walking around, not sitting in a theater. DO NOT waste your time on Best of Both Worlds (unless you like really cheesy imitation Broadway stuff —  and don’t say I didn’t warn you).

Sleep No More blind contour sketch

Unfortunately it’s too dark to draw in Sleep No More, but these blind contours came out okay. More drawings below the cut.

Minor Spoilers Ahead:

Sleep no More calls itself “an immersive production inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, told through the lens of a Hitchcock thriller.” Read that carefully. It is NOT a performance of Macbeth. It has characters and imagery from Macbeth, but mashed up with Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and presented not as any sort of narrative, but as a sort of persistent dream, or a really huge, sophisticated haunted house. Really huge. You cannot see everything in 3 hours. I have a friend who has seen it 3 times, and said that 80% of what he saw the third time was new (i.e. stuff he didn’t see the first 2 times). The characters rarely speak to each other, so just figuring out who they are is difficult. They dance. They play cards. They pull audience members into rooms and lock the door. They do acrobatic things that look incredibly dangerous. They move from room to room in a giant schoolhouse which has been transformed into Macbeth’s palace, the mansion of Manderley, the lair of the witches, a sick-house, a night club, and more. There is some nudity, and there is lots and lots of creepiness. You will think about it for a long time afterwards, and it is quite possible that it will actually disturb your sleep (for the record, Alison and I dreamed about it all night, but did not actually have nightmares).

Wear comfortable shoes and clothes. Bring a handkerchief in case you need to wipe your hands after touching a sticky doorknob. If you have a choice between glasses and contacts, you might want to choose contacts, because you will be asked to wear a mask, and it’s actually a lot cooler if you can wear it ON your face instead of perched on top of your head. Get the earliest ticket time you can. If you can avoid the coat check line by leaving your coat in the car, do so. Be prepared for low-light conditions. Don’t believe the website when it says you can’t park on the street. Do try to follow the actors around, but also explore the building. Get tickets now, because they sell out fast for the weekends, and for the 7:00 entry — and because you may want to go back!

By contrast, Best of Both Worlds is a traditional sort of theatrical production, in which you sit in seats and watch a staged performance. The performers are absolutely FANTASTIC, and when you read the program it’s no surprise to see that they are all serious heavy hitters, many having starred in Broadway shows such as RENT. They have amazing voices, and excellent acting chops as well. Unfortunately, they are limited by their material. The writing is horribly, laughably pathetic. I don’t actually know the racial background of the writers, but it sounds like they are all white folks trying to write soul. the dialog and narration are sung in the cheesiest, worst mix of opera, operetta, and broadway musical, and the lyrics feature only the most trite possible rhymes, combined with a floaty jazzy sound that doesn’t have the catchiness or danciness of a good gospel or R&B hit. Alison pointed out that it probably would have been so much better if they had just used actual hits from that era. Leontes could have sung “Heard it Through the Grapevine”, for example, when he thought his wife was cheating. I think that’s the sort of thing they do in The Donkey Show, which we’ve heard is great fun — so we’re still looking forward to that.

In the meantime I’m going to see Sleep No More again.

Oh, and here are some sketches from Best of Both Worlds.

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