To fans and students of the theater, Shakespeare is a lot of things: the world’s most brilliant cartographer of human emotion, one of the greatest playwrights of all time, and the genesis of a billion academic papers. To many more people, Shakespeare is pretty much one thing: completely incomprehensible.
This divide was on my mind walking into The New Renaissance Theatre Company’s latest production at Harrison Hills Park, as well as a few of the audience members nearest me – even tried and true theater fans can have trouble adapting to the complex language and earnestness of character in an unfamiliar work.
And yet, we know from history that Shakespeare plays to 1500’s Brits are like Marvel films to 2010’s Americans. These were works that played to all levels of socioeconomic class, that invited light interaction from an attentive audience. So why now are the works of Willy Shakes essentially relegated to people writing academic papers or comfortable referring to him as The Bard in conversation with other human beings – and how can we reopen Shakespeare’s bibliography to the people?
The New Renaissance Theatre Company is seeking to bridge that gap in a bold, if playful method of storytelling referred to on the playbill as “the unrehearsed cue script technique.” Although I initially interpreted this as code for ‘non-actors who want to participate in a play but don’t have enough time to commit,’ it actually means ‘actors who genuinely get Shakespeare want to make his works fun again.’
As interpreted by the NRTC, the unrehearsed cue script essentially has every actor holding a tiny scroll containing their lines that they must constantly roll to keep up with the rest of the cast. Anyone who’s glanced at A Midsommer Night’s Dreame before could tell you that this would seem fairly difficult, so there is a literal referee – in uniform – who shouts out stage directions and lines when things go off rails. If an actor snubs a line, the referee shouts it back at them. If an actor hasn’t shown up onstage in one of their scenes, she will verbally force them out. If a passing motorcycle takes attention away from the show, she will force the casts to begin an impromptu music video for the song Born To Be Wild.
You may have noticed I’m pretty deep into this review without having even mentioned the script, but to focus heavily on the text would be misdirection. It is the presence of the referee that defines this play. Besides correcting wayward actors, the referee’s duty is to basically ensure the play is moving as quickly as humanly possible. Actors must literally run to meet their cues, and speed through their lines like a collegiate debater. If an actor seems close to sitting with their monologue in a manner anywhere near normal human speech, the referee will force them to increase their speed.
In this way, the NRTC has boiled A Midsommer Night’s Dreame down to its barest essentials, and imposed a set of performance rules over top of it. To watch the show is not dissimilar to watching improv comedy, where slip ups and blunders generate the shows greatest moments.
However, the play is blindingly fast and as a result fairly indeterminable. As someone who enjoys some casual Shakespeare onstage and off, I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, the play only really requires an understanding of the many characters and their overall goals to understand the performances on a moment to moment basis, but with so many actors playing double rules, often with the exact same ‘I’m yelling as loud as I can while trying to still enunciate my words’ style of speaking, it becomes difficult to care about the characters. Instead, I cared more about the actors, and their ability to accurately verbally sprint.
Still, the casts’ attitude is perfect for this type of performance. They are goofy, loud, energetic, and more than happy to embrace the slipshod nature of the props and costumes. There is a memorable sequence in which Puck, the bumbling but warm hearted fairy, leads a row of hypnotized characters through the stage with a kazoo. The actress slipped midway through the performance, dropping the kazoo at least twice before picking it up, regaining control of the scene, and jumping up in an impromptu micro-celebration before continuing the rest of the scene in earnest.
These moments of self-aware goofiness define this production. The NRTC insists that you’ll, if nothing else, have a good time – even if it’s at the expense of understanding the text they so deeply care about. Gamifying Shakespeare is far from impossible, and any attempt to do so warrants applause. To use a referee as the play’s unwavering authority gives the performances a fun tension; her crossed arms and impatient attitude are, more than anything else, the play’s true focus. It’s an interesting approach, and one with merit, but I wonder if the NRTC’s signature technique has further to go in the way of development. I can only hope it does – if there is one thing to convince the citizens of Pittsburgh to care about the works of long-dead playwrights, incorporating sportsmanship is surely an act of genius.
A Midsommer Night’s Dreame runs along with The Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet in various locations through July 24th. All events are free, for more information click here.
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