Shit-faced Shakespeare

Highbrow meets lowbrow for an irreverent happy hour take on A Midsummer Night's Dream

Shakespeare purists and prudes beware: Magnificent Bastard Productions' Shit-faced Shakespeare is not for the easily offended. Unsanctimonious and rife with sexual innuendos, the UK hit has crossed the pond to Boston and now Austin, bringing its irreverent and inebriated rendition of A Midsummer Night's Dream to Spider House Ballroom. Juxtaposing the highbrow with the lowbrow, the premise is simple: Five classically trained actors – one of whom is positively shit-faced drunk – perform an abridged version of Shakespeare's comedy. The calculable result: It's a fucking mess. A fucking spectacular mess.

Daniel Berger-Jones is the show's compère of the evening. Part emcee, part safety patrol, he introduces the concept of the production by presenting the empty beer cans and Tito's vodka consumed by the randomly chosen actor in the hours leading up to the performance. Berger-Jones' flamboyant ringmaster costume – top hat, gold sparkle pants, and vest (sans shirt, natch) – alludes to the chaos to follow. At Shit-faced Shakespeare, two things are taken very seriously: safety and sobriety. Instruments are given to audience members who pledge to "bang" or "blow" if they suspect the drunken actor is in danger of sobering up, and the compère retains a horn of his own to regulate the performance and ensure the safety of everyone present. One lucky audience member is entrusted with "The Bucket" – you know, just in case.

Once the play begins, things begin to unravel quickly, to the delight of the audience. Shakespeare plays second-fiddle to the spectacle at hand: On opening night, Stacey Norris, the actor playing Helena, was the designated drunk, and she was fucking hammered. As her sober castmates improvised and desperately tried to keep the play going, Norris dropped F-bombs, broke character, heckled her fellow actors and the audience, and explained Shakespeare's sexual innuendos ("to 'die' – that means to orgasm"). The cast's dexterity with language is impressive, but the "play" clearly revolves around the disposition of the drunk. Luckily, Norris was, for the most part, an endearing drunk and joyfully complied with the audience's periodic demand that she hit the sauce some more. It is difficult to decipher the scripted bits from the spontaneous ones – a testament to the talent of the entire cast – although at times excessive hamming by sober actors fell flat, as it paled in comparison to the humor surrounding the boozer.

While slurred tangents often dragged the story into an amusing pit of chaos (and the compère's duty of keeping the cast on track felt like herding cats), an unexpected emotional response occurred in the audience: sympathy, mixed with a little anxiety and embarrassment. For anyone who has spent a day nursing a hangover, regretfully reading drunken texts, or endlessly replaying the train wreck of events from the previous night, watching the shit-faced actor is both a remorseful stroll down memory lane and a cautionary reminder. But Norris, bless her heart, bravely flew her FUBAR flag for the sold-out crowd and aside from some unintelligible lines, an overlong penis-poking bit, and calling out ineffective production elements ("this is a piece of shite direction"), she seemed to escape with her dignity intact – but let's ask her in the morning.

The show is thoughtfully kept around an hour, and space is made for inevitable drunken antics by cutting all storylines and characters, save the Lovers and Puck (played by Lewis Ironside, the show's director). Shakespeare novices, take heart: The cast freely offers exposition and ad libs to highlight key plot points. Shakespeare aficionados, take heed: You may think the show blasphemous at times, but keep in mind the irreverent innovation of the author, a man who, when he couldn't find the right word, just, you know, MADE ONE UP. Veterans of the UK and Boston casts are opening the show's Austin debut, and over the next couple weeks, local talents will replace them for the remainder of the run. Whether or not you're a fan of the Bard or booze, Shit-faced Shakespeare delivers one happy hour of comedy – dirty and with a twist.

Shit-faced Shakespeare

Spider House Ballroom, 2906 Fruth
Through March 26
Running time: 1 hr.

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Shakespeare, Magnificent Bastard Productions, Daniel Berger-Jones, Stacey Norris, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Spider House Ballroom

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