Fifty Shades of Shakespeare titillates from Bare Backstage
KALAMZOO, Mich.–How can a performance of Shakespeare be improvisational? After all, it isn’t as though the words haven’t been set down more or less in stone for the past five centuries.
That barrier didn’t stop Bare Backstage Productions from making the attempt in its very first production.
Making their company’s premiere performance on Valentine’s Day in Kalamazoo’s State Theatre, the theater got off to a rollicking start with their production of Fifty Shades of Shakespeare.
While I can’t claim to have seen the movies that the title riffs on, I’m pretty sure Bare Backstage Productions offers a more light-hearted and laughter-filled two hours. Not that they shy away from anything sexy or kinky.
The four actors who perform the 19 characters open the show by introducing themselves by name and safe word. They turn to the audience and ask them to draw names to determine which actors will play which roles—which means all four actors have to be prepared every night to play any role. The opening night production kicked off with some gender bending scenes followed by girl-on-girl and guy-on-guy action.
The famous balcony scene was performed with Tanisha Pyron as Romeo and Ken Holda as Juliet. Then Katherine “Kate” Harte DeCoux was Petruchio and Mitch Voss was Kate as they entered a boxing ring and sparred throughout their first meeting.
Some scenes were played “straight,” just as you might see them performed in any stage around the country, except perhaps for the gender-blind casting. Others were staged in non-conventional ways to pump the greatest humor out of them. Then, for some scenes, they did both. After DeCoux and Pyron did a very intense performance of the wooing of Anne by Richard III, the two men came out and did a modern reinterpretation of it, ruthlessly exposing every dysfunctional sentence and pointing out that this odd relationship can still be found in today’s television dramas.
For one scene, they even pull in a member of the audience, handing him a script and coaching him mid-scene on what to do.
Director Kevin Dodd made sure the four actors always stayed true to the text, but found interesting ways to stage each scene from a trailer park Tempest to Romeo and Juliet interrupting their farewells to take selfies, and a Cesario who needs to use her safe word when Olivia gets a little too kinky.
The one criticism of the staging is something that is hard for the director to overcome in the performance space. There were chairs lining the stage where the audience has a great view of the action. For those sitting at the tables behind them, often the only thing visible of the actors were their heads. They may have been engaged in great physical humor, but it was impossible to tell except by the laughter of those sitting in front. Bare Backstage Productions is taking this show on tour, so perhaps their other spaces will be set up in such a way that the actors can be seen by most of the audience.
That said, the Kalamazoo State Theatre had a lot of other advantages as a space, especially for those looking for a unique Valentine’s Day date. There was samplings of German food offered before the show, a bar offering drinks and a concession stand with popcorn and beverages. After the show, there were tango lessons by two traveling tango dancers. Couples could also grab props and get their pictures taken in a photo booth near the stage.
Sprinkled amid the scenes were improvisational games that included a Mad Libs sonnet, “Sex with me is like…” and answers to such audience prompts as “the funniest pick-up line I ever had was…” and “the most unexpected turn-on is…”
All four actors brought great enthusiasm and humor to their roles. It was easy to see they were comfortable with the Bard’s work and able to turn it upside down to pump out the greatest comedic effect.
While the show is definitely geared to entertain those who are familiar with Shakespeare’s work, Bare Backstage Productions keeps each scene accessible so that it is entertaining even if you don’t know the play from which the scene is set. It’s a fun way to spend an evening—and to launch a new theater company.