Sunday, October 31, 2010

Bootleg Saturday Night

Denied last year, I was going to make damn sure it didn't happen again, even if it meant getting in line two and a half hours before show time. Which we did.

Henley Street Theater was doing their second annual Bootleg Shakespeare and this year's production was Titus Andronicus, that bloodiest of Shakespeare's plays, and one which I've never seen performed live (probably because it's rarely produced).

Last year a friend and I had arrived at Barksdale an hour and a half before curtain only to find all the tickets gone. This year my couple date and I arrived by 5:30 and stood in the fading sun of Willow Lawn to score tickets.

People were playing cards, eating everything from fresh kale salad to Five Guys burgers, playing guitar and singing, knitting and chatting amongst themselves to kill the time. Maybe they'd been denied last year, too.

Because we were near the front of the line, when the box office did open at 6:30, we had tickets in hand within five minutes. That left until 7:55 to eat and get back in our seats. The problem was our location; we were in that chain restaurant hell of Willow Lawn and I don't do chains.

So we hopped in the car and headed over to the Grill at Patterson and Libbie, sure we could get a quick bite and not feed the corporate machine. Since my last visit, they'd added umpteen screens so every game in the world can be on, but I just sat under the screen and never had to look at it.

Knowing that the Barksdale serves cake (tonight's were coconut and chocolate torte) during intermission, I ordered the excellent wedge salad (actually two wedges with loads of bleu cheese chunks and bacon, grape tomatoes, red onions and drizzled in balsamic) and finished most of it, feeling quite virtuous for a change.

Our early placement in line had yielded tickets in the center section of Barksdale, fifth row (also the last) so we were surrounded by the same people we'd shivered with outside. There's not a bad seat in the entire theater because it's so small, but a center vantage point gave us an excellent view of all the action.

Henley's creative director James Ricks explained the bootleg process of actors being given 30 days to learn their lines, told to bring their own costumes and props and show up at 8 a.m today for blocking. As he quipped, "So we hearsed, but not rehearsed."

And therein lies the charm of a bootleg performance; the actors are experiencing things as the audience is. Even the lighting guy told me he was winging it (and beautifully, I might add).

The play began with characters campaigning for emperor by spray-painting their names on hanging sheets, soon to be further tagged by another with words like "douche" for emphasis.

Because Titus Andronicus is such an incredibly bloody play, fake blood was a requirement and pink Silly String was the creative substitute found for it. When characters died, and they almost all did, their can of Silly String spurted and squirted as they gasped and shuddered to death.

During the first act, the cell phone of a woman sitting in the front row rang. Actor Foster Solomon (playing the evil Aaron), a pro whom I'd seen in countless Shakespeare productions previously (and he's always superb), handled it perfectly.

He glared at her, he tried to grab her purse and finally, he sat down on a nearby bench and waited for her to turn it off and put it away. The people around me said they were hoping he'd dump her purse out on stage and fully humiliate her, but he didn't.

The appeal of these productions is the brilliant asides that lighten the darkest scenes. After the off-stage rape and disfiguring of Lavinia, the perpetrators come back on stage, one shirtless and one in his underwear. After their uncouth crowing about what they'd just done, they head off stage, one saying to the other's back, "Put some pants on, dude!"

And, like any Shakespeare, there is the timelessness of the dialog.
She is a woman, therefore may be wooed,
She is a woman, therefore may be won.
Or should I have picked a line by Publius?

The two musicians (guitar and bass) providing the sporadic soundtrack leaned heavily (pun intended) on AC/DC and Ozzy Osborne (with one White Stripes nod; it was definitely my day to hear "Seven Nation Army") to convey the mood of the play. They also had to occasionally dodge a dying character.

Pumpkins substituted for heads, fists for severed hands and sex was simulated repeatedly. More than one actor had to call for "Line!" which was not surprising given the lack of rehearsal.

During the intermission the stage manager said that she doesn't get to enjoy seeing the production because of having to follow the script so closely just for that reason.

But the occasional forgotten cue didn't detract from the overall enjoyment of the experience. Toward the end, both actors and audience were getting a little punch-drunk with all the death and irony in the dialog and more than one "dead" body could be seen convulsing in laughter. Sometimes heads had to be turned away until smiles disappeared.

Luckily the audience didn't have to worry about masking our smiles. Considering that I had not been denied this year, I couldn't have wiped the smile off my face if I'd tried.

Then, too, wooing quotes always make me smile.


  1. You chose well. Publius doesn't have any lines in T.A. nearly as good as that one.

  2. Certainly no great wooing lines!