Three Day Hangover opens its 2014 season with another refreshing and boozy take on a classic Shakespeare play. They’ve already figured out how to turn Hamlet into a Brooklyn hipster and how to turn the Capulet/Montague feud into a game of beer pong, adapting both with energetic and creative fidelity to Shakespeare’s timeless works. Now, Twelfth Night is transformed into Sir Toby’s Lonely Hearts Club Cabaret, adapted and directed by Beth Gardiner. Here, we lovesick New Yorkers are treated to the antics of the lonely-hearted bar staff of Illyria. The third floor of McGee’s substitutes for the original mysterious island where a set of fraternal twins, Viola and Sebastian (Laura Gragtmans and Blake Segal), fatefully land after a shipwreck leaves each thinking the other dead. Viola disguises herself as a man and finds employment as a barkeep under Duke Orsino’s (Lloyd Mulvey) management. Viola soon comes to love Orsino, who pines after bar-frequenter (and co-owner?) Olivia (Amanda Sykes), who falls for Viola’s romantic gestures on behalf of her master. With live-band Rockstar Karaoke at their side, they take frequent opportunities to express their complex Shakespearean feelings through karaoke pop hits, including songs from The Proclaimers, Michael Jackson, and Lady Gaga.
Running the show is Sir Toby Belch, played by a charismatic Colleen Harris, at the microphone. Sir Toby’s role in the adaptation is essential– her running commentary enables the play to run fluidly without losing any audience members who are not familiar with the original. One of the many great things about Three Day Hangover’s productions is how it uses the original text as a launching point for creating something truly accessible and contemporary. Here, for example, Viola and Sebastian’s joy at finding one another again feels so tangible and joyous, and after their dialogue together, it’s only fair for them to express their happiness via Cyndi Lauper. All of the characters’ song choices fit in the plot so naturally, we hardly feel the seamless transition between dialogue and karaoke. Are we muddling Shakespeare’s timeless and poetic words with pop lyrics, tainting the original’s classic essence? I’d say no. And I think Three Day Hangover would say, who the fuck cares?
As the plot unfolds, the play is intermittently halted by a few of Sir Toby’s antics, some of which worked and some that didn’t. A drinking of “That’s What She Said” in which the audience rings a bell on the table every time a line with sexual interpretations was said led to hilarious results. It worked well in channeling our dirty minds with attentive focus on the words of the play. This best of all worked in creating a happy and dynamic crowd energy. There were times however, when interrupting the play to get an audience member to sing karaoke or to read a few ‘missed connections’ listings on Craigslist felt gimmicky and distracting. I also think that the play’s energy suffered greatly from Three Day Hangover’s new move to McGee’s. Their last season was hosted at Harley’s Smokeshack, now Quinn’s Bar and Grill, whose top floor was a larger and far more versatile space. Actors had pool tables and benches and fire escapes at their creative usage, and audience members were free to move about and follow the action. McGee’s only affords a long, narrow seating area–not very conducive to performance staging. I felt like the actors were struggling to shift around the space, which limited them very noticeably. Also, I know cabarets are usually seated affairs with table service, but this traditional seating arrangement gave the production kind of disconnected, static, and affected atmosphere. Towards the end of the play, I felt the energy drop low, kind of like the way I have felt at dinner theater shows, a kind of false and only half-engagement with the work being presented before you.
Wonderfully acted and creatively re-envisioned, Twelfth Night has all the fun of happy hour at a world-class karaoke bar, but stumbles a bit distractedly away from providing us with an exciting, thoughtful, and reinvigorated adaptation like those we’ve come to expect from this company. Twelfth Night or Sit Toby’s Lonely Hearts Club Cabaret plays though June 30 at McGee’s. Tickets are only $15, you guys.