Reject Theatre Project’s first production, CORIOLANUS, is madness!—madness in the best sense of the word. This chaotic opus, directed by RTP’s own, Lesley Berkowitz (aka Reject #1), reaches Monty Python levels of absurdity one would never associate with CORIOLANUS, Shakespeare’s own, often overlooked, tragedy reject. But this performance was no tragedy. This show was different. This was exciting. This was Shakespeare unhinged.
The actors took to the stage, marching in unison like the Witch’s guards in the Wizard of Oz. They picked their roles for the night out of a hat, and proudly proclaimed aloud the character fate had chosen for them—hence, Shakespeare roulette.
In addition to this opening, Berkowitz—the lady behind the curtain—and the actors invited us to join them in a drinking-game: whenever an actor says wounds, drink; whenever an actor says traitor, drink; and my personal favorite, whenever an actor fucks up, drink!—a game fit for Shakespeare’s underlings.
Confused? Don’t worry, I was too. And to a certain extent one must be willing to “drink the Kool-Aid” (or in this case, cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon) in order to fully appreciate this CORIOLANUS. Not in the sense that you must be under the influence, but rather ready to take part in the risks and rewards a play such as this presents. It challenges you to relinquish control, let your guard down, and laugh along with the actors, not at them.
In order though to understand this production, you must first understand the story of the Rejects. They are a collective of eight misfit theater artists founded by Elaina DiMonaco and Haygen Brice Walker. Their mission is simple: provide emerging artists with opportunities to develop their unique skills and to help produce one another’s plays, or in Reject vernacular: Passion Projects. I couldn’t help but imagine them all sitting at the lunch table comprised of the kids no one wanted at their lunch table. And, being a lunch table reject myself, felt right at home in the weird little world they had created on the fifth floor of Play and Players.
Left-over Christmas lights dangling from the ceiling was all these brave actors had to guide them into the dark, murky unknown of Shakespeare roulette. The reading itself unfolded at a rapid clip: the actors sliding from seat to stage, alternately crashing into one another, stepping on each other’s lines, and spilling their drinks all over the floor (that last one was me).
Lisa Fischell was our CORIOLANUS (I say “ours” because odds are she won’t be “yours”). She flourished as the lead and gracefully danced her way through the tangled web of Shakespearean verse. No small feat when you consider she was cast in the role moments before it all began. She threw herself into the character with total abandon, and embodied the spirit of the performance—risk, courage, and a willingness to embrace the beautiful moments that are born out of spontaneity.
The rest of the cast followed suit and dove headlong into their respective characters. Joseph Ahmed seemed almost perfectly cast as an animated, yet courtly Roman Senator. Sarah Schol and Rebecca Buckley, both hysterical, seemed to be egging one another on, pushing Shakespeare’s prose to its limits by adopting a variety of ridiculous accents (Brooklyn cabbie, folksy Irish, Valley girl). Emily Fernandez and Hannah van Sciver, provided off the cuff fits of wit, one upping each other’s willingness to be clowns lost in Shakespeare’s tragedy. Amanda Jill Robinson and Megan Slater both transformed their traditionally authoritative roles into whimsical fools adding shades of satire to play. Richard Chan and Isa St. Clair both raced wildly about the stage, their performances brimming with over with surprise.
I loved it. And by the end of the night, I felt like I had come down with a fierce case of Stockholm syndrome—I wanted to join in on the madness. I wanted to lampoon tradition and scoff in the face of Shakespearean institutions—something I think the Bard (a trouble maker in his own right), would totally support. In short, check your highfalutin theater attitude at the door and prepare to have your preconceived notions of Shakespeare shattered. [Skinner Studio, Plays & Players, 1714 Delancey Place, 3rd Floor] April 29-May 2, 2015; RejectTheatreProject.org.