Published on February 17th, 2013 | by Greg0
Shakespeare Shakedown: A Midwinter Night’s Spectacle
Interactive theater is very much an evolving category, without a strict definition. Combining elements of the arts beyond traditional theater, these sorts of shows typically include some improvisation, immersive set design that requires (and rewards) exploration, and often break narratives out from a three-act structure. Depending on your take, the term can broadly include scavenger hunts, haunted houses, and murder mysteries, all time-tested approaches to getting an audience involved. We’ve seen audio-based tours like NY_Hearts that establish a new type of hyper-local storytelling, and shows like the incredibly popular Sleep No More that have a fixed location and a fairly tight structure but aim for a more experiential activity than sitting in a chair and watching actors perform.
We approve of any attempt to break art from the stage or walls and make something new, even if it is a bit confounding. Witness Ugly Rhino and their pair of shows at Brooklyn Lyceum, Centralia and Warehouse of Horrors, each of which took split up the dramatic action across multiple rooms , playing with synchronicity and offering parallel experiences with a few possible tracks. Even our most recently-reviewed show, Totally Tubular Time Machine, took the classic celebrity-lookalike cover show but brings it into the audience for a dance party.
A bit more original, and surprisingly effective, is Shakespeare Shakedown’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, held every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday @ 7pm until March 9th. The location is kept secret until you purchase your tickets, but it’s a fairly nondescript loft about six blocks from the Atlantic Avenue subway station in Brooklyn. We’ll borrow some of their description, as it doesn’t give too much away:
“Step out of the cold New York winter and through the unmarked door of a ramshackle warehouse. As you cross the threshold and ascend the stairs, thoughts of the city fade, replaced by a mystical, inexplicable air of surprise and sorcery. Welcome to Queen Titania’s enchanted grove of fairy mayhem and bardic revelry.
Time has gotten lost and mechanical oddities, trinkets and forgotten baubles operate alongside iPads and strange lights. Fairies, woodland creatures, lovebirds, madmen, even normal guys getting swept up in the action…”
Walking in at first, you’ll need some time to adjust. There’s always some level of discombobulation, and it’s a good sign that an environment is immersive. Though clearly created on a budget, the space plays a critical role in guiding attendees, offering seating and opportunities for interaction. And while certainly not a multi-level ‘hotel’, it’s impressive to be able to cram in multiple different “stages” into a fairly small small space. The play lends itself nicely to a dream-like setting, and though we doubt the Bard would have envisioned iPads as props, everything works fairly well, including the electronic music backdrop and weird melange of costumes.
Some additional on-boarding would be nice. Crucial to an experience is making visitors welcome, and it’s something where details matter. The initial moments need to capture and enchant an audience and they were a little rough here. A guide for each group coming in would be welcome, or an introductory segment- whether an elevator ride with a surprise that sets the stage or a slightly cheesy time machine with flashing lights and music. They serve a similar purpose- you want to ease folks into the world, and encourage people out of their shells.
But the basics were nailed here- compelling characters that kept on-script even in completely unscripted interactions, with well-casted actors who had clearly studied improv and their backstories. The drama swirled around the space, basic beats keeping fairly close to the original play, with the actors filling the moments in-between moping or scheming or sleeping when they might have instead been hidden backstage. Early on, we spotted Hermia writing forlorn in a journal, so sat down next to her and asked about what she was writing. Thus began a conversation about her father and star-crossed love and suicidal tendencies, which ended only when she attempted to find and introduce her lover, Lysander. Even if you don’t know the play, it’s still easy to get caught up, if a little difficult to follow the action (a guide might be helpful, explaining some of the characters).
There are impromptu dance numbers to learn from fairies and some audience members will end up with roles. The Queen will ask for tribute and the bar will remain open throughout (with slightly overpriced drinks, in our opinion). The gears move surprisingly smoothly here, with little down time, few weak spots, and a sense of continuity and momentum that make the time fly and keep everyone engaged.
Highly recommended for anyone looking for an interesting, very New York experience, without having to spend a fortune to visit the McKittrick Hotel. Tickets are $30, or VIP tickets are available for $60.