Dallas — The first time I heard about the concept of performing Shakespeare in a bar setting I was excited. What could be better than combining one of the world’s greatest storytellers with the socially lubricated atmosphere of a pub patio?
Then I became highly apprehensive. I started to think about some of the worst aspects of outdoor Shakespeare: the heat, the bugs, boorish behavior by audience members more interested picnicking than live theater, and did I mention the heat? Would a play performed in such a setting devolve into much of the self-indulgent and rude behavior (talking and texting) often seen at many concerts these days? Would a great place to drink and a great play both be ruined in combination?
My love of Shakespeare and spirits finally overcame any reticence I felt, so I penciled in Shakespeare in the Bar’s (SITB) production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Wild Detectives in Oak Cliff. SITB is described as “Classic plays. Barely rehearsed with serious actors. In a bar.” Southern Methodist University grads Katherine Bourne and Alia Tavakolian, along with University of Dallas alumnus Dylan Key founded Shakespeare in the Bar in 2014 to produce great works for audiences in a more natural and immediate way than is found in most conventional theater settings.
They select the cast from friends and actors they know and then decide on a play, have a couple of read-throughs, and a tech rehearsal in the space (Wild Detectives’ back patio). Midsummer marks their fourth production (Twelfth Night, Love's Labour's Lost and Much Ado About Nothing came before) and elicited such a huge response that when more than 4,000 tried to confirm attendance on Facebook, the group set up an Eventbrite page to disperse the free tickets to a more manageable number. (There will be another performance of Midsummer, at 9 p.m. Monday, July 6 at Community Beer Company in the Design District.)
SITB suggests that patrons show up early to nab a spot in the cramped, nay intimate, patio space of Wild Detectives (a bookstore, bar, workspace, and literary salon of sorts). I noticed folks arriving two hours early for a 9 p.m. start. A buzz was definitely in the air as the sun went down and an audience that ran the gamut of hipsters, artists, local actors and theater people, date-nighters, and just the curious crowded the space to the point where only a narrow strip of ground running from the back fence to the bar’s rear porch entrance remained.
After a short announcement of some ground rules—if an actor calls out “line!” everyone must drink—and a description of the play as being “barely rehearsed,” things kicked off with palpable merriment. Very little costuming (some blue makeup, flowers, and improvised capes for the faeries and regular street clothes for the Athenians), almost no props, and a ragtag-looking but fantastic-sounding live band rounded out the ensemble.
What we are left with, and it’s far, far more than enough, is a group of artists sharing their love with a rapt and enthusiastic audience craving to be a part of something beautiful and ephemeral. What I noticed (and was swept up in myself) was the passion that seems to rocket through every person there because the line between entertainer and entertained was erased. It was a lovely and raucous pas de deux of cheers, chanting, supportive heckling (yes, that’s a thing) spontaneous applause, and much swooning by the audience, and inventive characterizations, creative blocking, third wall-busting, and hilariously drunken (some more than others) bombast by the cast.
I have had the pleasure of acting in, attending and reviewing, and writing about quite a bit of the Bard, but this performance of Shakespeare in the Bar was a singular experience. It transcended mere performance into something visceral and quasi-religious. As a critic, I try to always maintain a posture of objective observation. Sometimes this sedate pose is more difficult than others; during SITB’s production it was impossible. I found myself laughing, cheering, and even tearing up a bit because what I saw incorporated the best parts of live theater and took all involved on a fantastic journey of discovery (not easy with Shakespeare these days).
Count me as a Bardfly.