November 19, 2010

Filament Theatre transports Shakespeare back to his playful roots

How do you write a review for a show that changes every night? Filament Theatre’s Choose Thine Own Adventure is a play in which the audience gets to decide what happens. In this improvised mash-up of Shakespearean plays, there are 20 different ways the play could go and four possible endings. As one of the cast members added at the end, “If you didn’t like the show tonight, come back tomorrow, and maybe you’ll like it better!” So how do I review a play that I might love one night and hate the next? I discovered that, in fact, it is this constantly changing nature of the play that makes it so wonderful and so unique.

Choose Thine Own Adventure is Filament’s attempt to recreate what theater was like in Shakespeare’s day. Shakespeare—as I’m sure has been drilled into you by high school English teachers—is brilliant and powerful and universal. But what those English teachers forgot to tell you is that dissecting Shakespeare in a classroom and poring through footnotes that explain obscure words is not at all the experience, and Filament strives to make his plays to our modern world what they were for the theatergoers of his day.

Shakespeare is universal in his ideas and in his depictions of humanity, but those so often get obscured by time, language, and a certain barrier that is erected between us and the classics. Filament Theatre breaks down this barrier violently, rowdily, bawdily, and amusingly to create a performance that the audience can both participate in and relate to.

In Shakespeare’s day, many theatergoers, instead of being prim and proper patrons, were people called groundlings who would pay a penny to stand, watch a play, and shout at the stage. They laughed at those bits that we now need footnotes for, and they probably cried at the end of Othello or Hamlet. They were involved with and attached to the performance, which is exactly what Choose Thine Own Adventure brings to life.

Audience members shouted themselves hoarse with votes for the way the play should go, such as raising their hand to suggest a name for Romeo to be “new-baptis’d,” as his appellation of “Capulet” was displeasing to Juliet. Actors ran through the audience, borrowed beer bottles, and sometimes brought down the fourth wall rather violently to argue with each other about how the play should go. It was funny, real, and alive.

And yet, despite all the rowdiness and shouting, the play kept the spirit of Shakespeare alive. At first, it felt slightly disconnected—like random scenes of Shakespeare plays strung together—but soon a common thread began to emerge as the play mixed poignant and tragic depictions of human emotion with humor, just as Shakespeare would’ve wanted it. For Shakespeare understood that life can be hilarious and depressing, tragic and comic—why else would he begin the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet with a scene of sex jokes?

In this respect, the actors were phenomenal in portraying Shakespeare’s characters, capturing their grief and sorrows as well as their jokes and laughter. I was particularly touched by Othello’s line at the end, in which he ponders that a candle, blown out, can be lit again, but the light of life, once blown out, cannot be rekindled. It was poignant and well played, but what made it even better was the actor’s humorous comment to the audience about what that line actually means.

Adding to the sheer novelty of the play was the pre-show. Having taken the rather rickety stairs down to the Underground Lounge Bar, I was courteously greeted by a gentleman in a ruff and an Elizabethan outfit. Inside, guests mingled with drinks and chatted with the actors, all in Elizabethan dress, while a handout on the table let you play Shakespeare trivia or put together your own insults from a list of Shakespearean words. It was like descending into another world and another time.

I feel entirely as if I’ve spoiled the show, for I’ve given away everything that made me enjoy it. Yet it’s quite probable that I have said very little of what you’ll actually see, for the adventure that you choose will, quite probably, be different from mine.