The Backroom Shakespeare Project is a special kind of theater company. Their tagline, “Serious actors, no director, one rehearsal, at a bar” pretty much sums up their way of making theater. From a scholarly perspective, the “project” that gives them their name is a particularly interesting one. For the BRSP, the goal is to recreate the kind of relationship between actors and audience experienced by early modern theatergoers. By that, they do not mean that they are trying to recreate the production values of Shakespeare’s company; quite the contrary. A good reproduction of a production as done on the stage of the Globe (a project that has been attempted many times to various degrees) could not possibly recreate the audience experience enjoyed by the apprentices who loved the plays at the Red Bull so much that they rioted when Queen Anne’s Men moved into the upscale Cockpit and raised their ticket prices. Instead, the BRSP works hard to put their audience at ease—to make them feel like they belong there, and are part of the show; not in the contemporary “immersive” way that is quite popular in a lot of theaters, where actors talking to audience members feels almost aggressive and uncomfortable, but rather with a sense of comradeship. The Project achieves this comradeship by laying out their principles before the show—literally telling audiences to keep their phones on, to live-tweet or Instagram or Facebook the show as it happens, and to get up whenever they feel like they want another beer or need to go to the restroom.
During their performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Radler on July 25, the whole audience was laughing uproariously, for nearly the entire duration of the play. Of course, Midsummer is a comedy, but all too often, that appellation is not earned in production. The show opened with “Bear Baiting” (and a brief explanation of the early modern practice of bear baiting and its relation to the theater), where audience members volunteered to take on the roles of bear and dog—though in an insult competition drawn from random internet searches rather than actual combat—cheered on by the rest of the audience and the cast. It worked well to set the mood and get the audience comfortable with the different kind of theater experience. What made the show so much fun was that the actors were bringing the story directly to the audience that was there to see it, mixing Shakespeare’s language with Chicago’s, to tell a story that is both Shakespeare’s and Chicago’s. This is the “Rough Theatre” that Peter Brook discusses in The Empty Space:
The arsenal is limitless: the aside, the placard, the topical reference, the local jokes, the exploiting of accidents, the songs, the dances, the tempo, the noise, the relying on contrasts, the shorthand of exaggeration, the false noses, the stock types, the stuffed bellies. The popular theatre, freed of unity of style, actually speaks a very sophisticated and stylish language: a popular audience usually has no difficulty in accepting inconsistencies of accent and dress, or in darting between mime and dialogue, realism and suggestion.
This is the kind of theater that Backroom embraces. And it is the same theater that Shakespeare’s companies embraced. Again, in Brook’s words:
The popular tradition is also bearbaiting, ferocious satire and grotesque caricature. This quality was present in the greatest of rough theatres, the Elizabethan one.
This production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was unapologetic in its attempt to tell us the story in ways that make sense to us, not to Shakespeare’s long-dead audience. The actuality was evident in the acknowledgment of all the things in this 400-year-old play that no longer work. There are lines of poetry that no longer rhyme in our current pronunciation. The actors did not ignore the text, nor did they ignore their own voices; they tried to rhyme the words, acknowledged their failure with a laugh or a furrowed brow, then repeated the line using the non-rhyming “correct” pronunciation with evident satisfaction. The production thus reaped the benefits of a running gag that was continually entertaining, and which was both utterly contemporary and yet rooted deeply in the text that they love.
In a similar vein, Skyler Schrempp’s interpretation of Puck as a harried, disorganized personal assistant was hilarious. What seemed at first like simply a funny choice (Schrempp was constantly jotting notes down on post-its, napkins, and eventually her arm, whenever Oberon said anything) landed brilliantly when she, a bit behind on her dictation, made Oberon repeat “Athenian garments” several times as the Fairy King was describing who should be dosed with the love potion.
Puck: Athenian what?
Puck: Right, got it! (Scribbling. Pause.) And…garments are clothes?
Puck: Athenian clothes, got it. That’s it? Nothing else?
Of course, when the potion goes in the wrong eyes, and Oberon begins to blame Puck, she still has the words “Athenian garments” scribbled on her forearm to show to Oberon, to the raucous laughter of the crowd.
The topical references that, by Brook’s account, are a vital part of the rough theatre were there: the “Ass’s head” that Puck put onto Bottom was, of course, a Donald Trump mask. The joke was so obvious that it seemed almost too easy, but nonetheless it connected with the audience, many who have probably seen practically nothing else on their social media since the GOP convention the week before.
The audience relationship is the primary focus of the Project, but it is in service to the play. The actors are telling the story because the story is important to them. What they do with the story is often funny, often self-referential, and often a departure from the text, but their performance results in an audience experience that allows for thoughtful consideration of what the story is saying. In this production, the genders of the characters were assigned as if at random; all four lovers were played by women, while Hippolyta was played by a man. But on reflection, it is not random. Audiences for Midsummer Night’s Dream regularly feel that they cannot tell the lovers apart or remember who is supposed to go with whom, and in this performance, it seems like that is part of the point of the play. At the opening of the play, Demetrius and Lysander both love Hermia, but the play take valuable exposition time right at the beginning to make it clear that the lovers have always been switching roles. Not long ago both men loved Helena, and first one and then the other changed allegiances. If the four lovers are all the same gender, then the mixing and matching between them is even harder to follow; we in the audience are led to understand that there might be less “true” about “true love” than a surface reading of the play would indicate.
As evidenced by this performance alone, The Backroom Shakespeare Project is worth seeing. In a way, the Project is a testament to the strength of Shakespeare’s plays: there is room in Chicago for every kind of adaptation, performance and treatment, from the flagship productions of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, to the gritty storefront theaters, to the many Shakespeare in the Park productions this summer. Each has something to offer, some new insight into the Elizabethan world.
Richard Gilbert is a doctoral student in the English department at Loyola University Chicago. His research focuses on representations of violence in the theater, as well as adaptations and versionality. He holds an MA in humanities from University of Chicago, and a BA in theater from Brandeis University.