Weird Willie Style

The many adaptable faces of Shakespeare.

Macbeth is better with beer. When Jonathan Owicki staged the well-worn Shakespearean tragedy in March, he decided to add a drinking game, which he says helped the audience—and actors—gain a deeper understanding of the original text.

"I decided to have a simple game, which is: Drink every time blood is mentioned. And this happens a lot," says Owicki, who stages "Shakespeare parties" in bars around Portland, where every attendee receives a role and script at the door and helps act out the plays while hitting the sauce. "You can read about the blood imagery in Macbeth on paper, but this really brought home 'this is how Shakespeare uses the language—I really notice how often Shakespeare mentions blood because I'm drinking every time.'"

Portland loves its Shakespeare. But this year, it feels like the interpretations have taken on an especially twisted bent. 

In July, Hillsboro theater company Bag&Baggage staged Kabuki Titus, melding the grisly tragedy of Titus Andronicus with traditional Japanese kabuki theater, while Portland Shakespeare Project commissioned local playwright C.S. Whitcomb to reimagine King Lear, recasting the king as a tobacco tycoon in 1920s Virginia in Lear's Follies. And Sunday, Aug. 26, the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival—which performs without rehearsal, with each actor taking a different role for every performance and an onstage prompter who directs improvised entertainment every time a plane flies overhead—will perform its final show of the season, staging As You Like It in Mount Tabor Park.

But honors for the most original interpretation of the Bard for the 2012 season probably go to the Anjali School of Dance, which in September performs A Midsummer Night's Dream using the traditional, 200-year-old Indian dance form of bharatanatyam. Anita Menon, the school's founder and artistic director, says she wanted to tell stories that would resonate more with her young dancers, who all studied A Midsummer Night's Dream in sixth grade.  

"I think they dance with a lot more passion if they relate to the stories," Menon says. "We have always passed down the traditional dance form, but I'm equally passionate about making sure…it's interesting for the next generation of dancers."

The Western world's intimate familiarity with the works of Shakespeare is key to their adaptability, says John Schmor, head of the theater arts department at the University of Oregon.

"They're known even if they're not known," says Schmor, who once staged a zombie version of Hamlet. "You could draw the balcony scene [from Romeo and Juliet] and someone who's never read the play or seen the title could tell you what scene it is."

Owicki agrees that a "Chekhov Party" wouldn't quite have the same appeal. His next Shakespeare Party will also feature As You Like It, performed in the graffiti-covered downtown basement of the Jack London Bar. He says to expect lots of "queer gender-bending fun" and five or six dance breaks. 

"I think people enjoy reclaiming something that is often seen as a bit stuffy and a bit inaccessible and saying, 'No I'm telling this story,'" Owicki says, "'and I'm doing it while slightly drunk in a bar.'"

SEE IT: The Shakespeare Party performs As You Like It at the Jack London Bar, 529 SW 4th Ave., 227-5327, on Thursday, Aug. 23. 7 pm. $5 donation. The Original Practice Shakespeare Festival's As You Like It plays at Mount Tabor Park, Southeast 60th Avenue and Salmon Street, on Sunday, Aug. 26. 1 pm. Free.  

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