SOMERVILLE — At one point during the opening-night performance of “(Expletive) Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’’ a cast member crawled across the stage at the Davis Square Theatre and began literally chewing the scenery.
As the actress chomped on some artificial green leaves, she turned to the audience and declared proudly: “I made these.’’ Her impromptu meal was interrupted when another cast member suddenly materialized from offstage and began to drag her away. “I made these!’’ she wailed as she disappeared into the wings.
If you’re thinking that scene doesn’t accord with your memories of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’’ there’s a reason: The actress was drunk. We’re talking blotto, not tipsy.
That’s the gimmick behind “(Expletive) Shakespeare,’’ by Magnificent Bastard Productions, making its US premiere at Davis Square Theatre after years of performances in the United Kingdom. One cast member gets inebriated before each performance, and then the rest of the ensemble tries to make their way through a Shakespeare play — in this case, “Dream,’’ directed by Lewis Ironside — while coping with their alcohol-addled colleague. It’s a different actor each time.
On opening night the designated drinker was Stacey Norris, portraying Helena. Starting five hours before the show, Norris consumed two beers and three-quarters of a bottle of vodka, a spokeswoman confirmed. The bottle and two beer cans were displayed onstage.
(The spokeswoman said Thursday morning that the other cast members carefully monitored Norris while she drank and also backstage during the performance, and that she — as with all actors chosen as the drinker for any given performance — had a “mandatory water hour’’ after Wednesday’s show, to eat some food and to hydrate).
The result of imbibing all that vodka and beer was akin to one of those parties where an inebriated guest grows progressively more tedious as the evening goes on. Yes, the youthful audience responded enthusiastically to Norris’s rowdy antics and to her interactions with her castmates and with the audience themselves. Yes, the troupe is an appealing bunch: Mac Young as Puck, Beth-Louise Priestley as Hermia, Saul Marron as Lysander, John Mitton as Demetrius, and Ironside as “The Compare,’’ a kind of emcee.
But overall this is a troubling “Dream.’’ You don’t have to be a teetotaler or a killjoy to feel queasy sitting amid a throng of spectators who are roaring with laughter while someone reels about the stage for an hour or so, virtually out of control. Onstage as in life, drunks are more depressing than funny. Further curdling the laughs for anyone who lives in this university-packed region is an awareness of the epidemic of binge drinking on college campuses.
In pure theater terms, the drunk-actor strategy didn’t work, either. It’s not that Shakespeare is sacred, nor that booze is alien to the Bard and his works: Just think of Falstaff, or the great Shakespearean actors, from Barrymore to Burton, who were no strangers to spirits. And the idea of transformation is obviously central to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’’ in which four lovers wander through the woods, spells are cast, and romantic destinies are tangled before all is made right again.
But whereas an agent of anarchy like Harpo Marx would hilariously destabilize a scene, he wouldn’t demolish it. Too often, that’s what Norris did Wednesday. (I’m blaming the booze, by the way, not the actress). She delivered most of her lines at warp speed, rendering them almost unintelligible (though I guess it’s impressive she could remember them). She stepped on the lines of others, grabbed at their crotches, made random squawking sounds, and repeatedly broke the flow by asking the audience questions like “What are you talking about?’’
I know, I know, that kind of disruption is supposed to be the point, but a little of it went a long way.
To be fair, Norris and her castmates rescued some scenes with native wit, often by bursting through that fourth wall, meta-style. Before one scene, Norris confided to the audience: “This is a really wonderfully directed bit. Let’s see if it scans true.’’ When she kept referring to Mitton as John, he said through gritted teeth: “My name is Demetrius.’’ At another point, she scolded Marron for apparently not standing in the right spot: “Stagecraft, simple stagecraft. Let them see you.’’
They’re obviously a skilled bunch, including Norris. I wouldn’t mind seeing them in an all-sober “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ sometime. But when it comes to “(Expletive) Shakespeare,’’ I think I’d rather just go on the wagon.Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.