It’s a gimmick, and they’re not afraid to say so. But gimmicks often work in theater. This one’s got one UMass Boston alumnus riding a hit show with no end in sight—performing the works of William Shakespeare while sometimes drunk.
Shit-faced Shakespeare began in the UK six years ago through Magnificent Bastard, Ltd. They launched in the US at the Davis Square Theater in Somerville in March. Brett Milanowski ’93 joined the cast at the beginning. They perform abridged plays by Shakespeare. Each night, one member of the cast, as the name implies, takes the stage noticeably under the influence. Gimmick or not, it’s now a rarity in the Boston theater scene – a successful show approaching 100 performances with no sign of stopping.
Most shows in Boston open and close in just a few weeks, even when successful. Shows with extended runs like Shear Madness or The Donkey Show present rare opportunities to work steady over a long period.
Milanowski graduated UMass Boston magna cum laude and was awarded the Performing Arts Department Book Award for his outstanding body of work. He also landed the title role in Hamlet at the McCormack Theatre his senior year. He admits, Shit-faced Shakespeare might not seem to be exactly what he trained for as a theater arts major at first. But it’s also surprisingly in synch with the work ethic he learned on UMass Boston stages years ago.
Yes, he and cast members take turns tying one on before performing, but it’s also a troop of actors dedicated to performance, he says. And just maybe, while the crowd leans forward to watch a stumbling, drunken actor possibly (probably) mess it all up, the cast creates a new back door to introducing Shakespeare to young adult audiences out for a fun Friday night.
“We drink a lot,” Milanowski says. “You’re drinking for four hours or five, and before you go on you get hit with a performer’s adrenaline. It’s unlike any other experience I’ve had consuming alcohol. It turns everything up – not to eleven, but to 12 or 13.”
“The performance is an hour long, and it goes by in a flash,” he said. “You don’t remember exactly what happened. They’ll tell you ‘you were great,’ ‘you were funny.’ But you’re thinking ‘did I ruin any relationships?’”
“It’s a gimmick, and we know that,” he says. “There’s this conceit, and the audience is in on it. We have a very specific way we get them drunk. There’s a lot of safety guidelines; the actor drinking is never left alone. Despite all that, the producers are pretty upfront that this is really a bad idea. It’s not healthy, and you probably shouldn’t do it.”
Shortly afterward graduating, Milanowski formed a small theater company, the Theater COOP, with fellow alums. Acting and directing, and landing television commercial and industrial film work quickly, he then took an 11-year acting hiatus to write, returning to the audition circuit and area stages in 2011.
Since then, he’s had little down time, working on commercial shoots and independent films, and landing critically acclaimed roles with Titanic Theater, Fresh Ink, Vaquero Playground, Next Door Center for the Arts, and Stickball Productions. He was nominated for an IRNE Award for best supporting actor earlier this year.
But Shit-faced Shakespeare, he also serves as Company Manager, presents a rarity for even a successful stage actor—a steady gig. Closing in on 100 shows, there are no sign of stopping as audiences keep coming.
Even through the glassy-eyed blur of performing the role of Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream while hammered, the lessons from classes, workshops, and shows at UMass Boston’s McCormack Theatre years ago still hold.
“An actor’s life, you don’t know what turns it will take,” Milanowski says. “One of the things I love about my UMass Boston education, I felt like it was based on passion. There was this blue-collar sensibility to theater we had that I loved. You show up, do your hours, do your work. There are schools with higher-priced sets, but at UMass Boston we had to make stuff happen with what we had and what we could create – and that pays off.”
“Even doing Shit-faced Shakespeare, that applies,” he says. “You have to show up, take care of business.”