Back Room Shakespeare: Trashing the Notion of Shakespeare As 'Highbrow' One Play At A Time

Way back in January, I saw The Tempest performed by the Back Room Shakespeare Project on a cold and snowy evening in Chicago. On May 4th, I caught the last two and a half acts of Othello, performed at The Radler in Logan Square. I had every intention of catching the entire thing, but these shows are so popular that, 45 minutes before the play began, the 200 people capacity was filled and my friends and I couldn’t get in. After assuaging our disappointment at Revolution Brewing with a few drinks, we wandered back past the restaurant, found no one at the door and ample space inside, gathered our liquid courage, and snuck in.

Best decision ever. Not even a little bit sorry.

I’ve been pondering how to adequately sum up the experience of these shows; the actors, their performance, the crowd, the energy. When you think of Shakespeare’s plays and seeing them live, you might be thinking of larger productions, with elaborate costume design, props, and a little more gravitas, depending on the play. As I said in my first post about BRSP, Back Room Shakespeare isn’t about that life. It’s about the characters, the actors, and the story, stripped down to the words and the performance.

I cannot do it justice with words: their shows are something to see for yourself.

I can tell you that their performances are something I look forward to months in advance. That I clear my schedule in order to see them, because when you’re in it, hearing the bard’s words, seeing it in the manner it was more than likely performed at the Globe, it is one of those life-affirming events where you’re just damn glad to be alive, in that room, sharing that experience with the rest of the audience and witnessing Shakespeare come to life in very capable hands. I make a point to read the play a few days prior, that way it’s fresh in my memory, so if they change a line or modernize it, as they are wont to do, I’ll pick up on it and it’s all the funnier for it.

And these shows are funny.

I’ve never heard a crowd laugh as much outside of a stand up comedy show. The Tempest has humorous elements to it, but a lot of the humor comes from off the cuff modernization or current slang thrown in by the actors. Early on, Sebastian (brother to the king who later plots his murder) sings “Got your back, bro” – and instead of Miranda’s line “O my father, / I have broke your hest to say so” when she tells Ferdinand her name, BRSP Miranda screams “Goddammit my dad told me not to tell you!” The characters interact with the audience often. In the scene when Ferdinand is carrying wood for Prospero as his slave, the actor was hefting bar stools across the small stage and slamming them down by where my friend and I stood. “You can sit if you’d like,” he told us, then shouted, “I have thousands more to bring!” Seeing The Tempest performed also gave me a new appreciation for the comedy scenes with Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. They bothered me in the reading and I grew irritated with their buffoonery, but seeing their shenanigans acted out was something different. I could see why Shakespeare’s audience would have responded well to their antics.

BRSP’s Othello exhibited an intensity that had the entire room holding its breath. I knew the last two acts would be something special to see performed; I could not wait to watch Emilia lose her shit on Othello and Iago in the final act. Not only was I not disappointed, I was pleasantly surprised by the gender switch BRSP did – something they’ve done at every show I’ve attended (never again will I see something as glorious as Elizabeth Laidlaw playing Philip The Bastard in King John). Alex Weisman played Emilia, and his performance took my breath away. James Vincent Meredith was everything I could have ever wanted in Othello; his scenes with Desdemona put my heart in my throat and brought me to tears. The actors weaved in and out of the audience as they performed; at one point, Othello was by the bar in the crowd, contemplating the murder of his wife.

I don’t know if I can see Shakespeare any other way after this and not hold it up to the bar The Back Room Shakespeare Project has set. I brought along two of my co-editors from the college journal to Othello, and they have been successfully converted to the church of BRSP. They’re attending the upcoming July performance of The Merchant of Venice. I can’t go, for reasons I will detail in another post, but rest assured it is a damn good reason for missing out.

This is one hidden little gem of Chicago’s that deserves all the attention and support in the world. I recommend signing up for their email list to hear about shows, and if you go, donating monies – these shows are free, after all. A Shakespeare play put on by Back Room Shakespeare is like nothing you’ve experienced before.

That is a promise.



The Tempest

The Tempest

The Tempest - Prospero and Miranda

The Tempest – Prospero and Miranda

The Tempest - Ariel

The Tempest – Ariel










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