The moral implications of Drunk Shakespeare, in which a performer gets deliberately plastered before attempting a major role in Macbeth, may feel a bit troubling. But concerns about liver damage aside, the recently opened Chicago version of this show (created by Scott Griffin and director David Hudson) that’s now in its fifth year in New York brings together a murderers’ row of comedic talent to what is essentially Comedy Central’s Drunk History with a literary twist—served on the rocks, straight up, and with many disgusting variations in between.
On the night I attended, Courtney Rikki Green tackled Lady M with verve, bringing an astounding amount of emotional nuance to the sleepwalking scene, despite the five shots of whiskey she downed before the 90-minute show (enough to make anyone see Birnam Wood moving—though here the forest is represented by the ensemble waving Little Trees air fresheners). She and Ahmed T. Brooks as Macbeth served up double and triple shots of sexual entendres while bringing in references to everything from Barack and Michelle Obama to The Lion King. Thomas Toles as the host kept the proceedings on track while entering scenes in a variety of film genres (action movie, film noir), as commanded by Green.
The upside to being the designated drunk is that you get to toss monkey wrenches into the performance works from time to time. The other official disrupters are the guests willing to fork over $500 (yikes!) for the special “King” (or “Queen”) package, which gets you a throne, expensive hooch (including a bottle of champagne one performer described as tasting “like what I imagine my mother’s approval feels like”), and the right to interrupt the proceedings and decide if you will “pardon” the night’s drinker or add to their hangover by commanding them to down another shot. (The king at my performance stole the show with a proposal—accepted!—post-curtain call.)
It takes performers with a sure knowledge of the original story and a firm handle on timing (both in terms of iambics and improv) to not fall off the narrative wagon with a show like this. In the tiny speakeasy-library setting of the Lion Theatre (a storefront space located behind the Chicago Theatre), the cast of Drunk Shakespeare moved with adroit wit and physicality throughout the audience seated on benches on either side of the playing area. (Kudos to the bar staff who also kept libations coming for patrons throughout.) You have to be pretty damn smart to make something that sounds this stupid on paper feel exhilarating rather than exhausting. Together, this cast embodies a new kind of “triple threat”—they can make Shakespeare’s dialogue sing, they can ad-lib through the most ridiculous situations, and they can hold their liquor. One suspects that they’re honoring the Elizabethan tradition, after all. v