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Adapting the Bard to Brooklyn Hot

Roseanne Wells
Written by Roseanne Wells     July 31, 2008    
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Adapting the Bard to Brooklyn

Photos: Peter Miller, Freebird Books

To advertise his debut novel, My Name is Will, Jess Winfield has created a record for the most plays adapted from Shakespeare performed in Brooklyn in one day. In addition to reading excerpts from his book, Winfield (the co-founder and former actor of the Reduced Shakespeare Company) condensed thirty-one plays for the publicity pub crawl, including: sixteen comedies mashed into a giant mega-comedy; a twenty-second Romeo and Juliet of mostly “I love you, I love you, I hate you, I hate you, you’re dead, I’m dead”; a remarkable rap adaptation of Othello, and a Hamlet that fully encapsulates the complexity of the play—all in under one minute. Although Hamlet is the only adaptation that quotes Shakespeare’s verse, Winfield proves a sharp actor and thorough scholar under his fun, artistic bohemian exterior. It is not surprising that his admiration of Shakespeare manifests itself in an unpretentious modern deconstruction that honors both the Bard and Winfield’s own experience with the plays.

Winfield studied Shakespeare in school, starting with Romeo and Juliet in eighth grade, but was drawn to the work beyond the classroom through interpretations of the original text. “I fell in love with adaptation first,” Winfield admits, telling of his first encounter with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead from an Oregon Shakespeare Festival two-man production on tour. During his undergrad at UC Berkeley, he was cast as the title role in Stoppard’s 15 Minute Hamlet. He played Hamlet again when he auditioned at a Los Angeles Renaissance Faire for Daniel Singer’s 30 Minute Hamlet, an expanded version of Stoppard’s adaptation. The future Reduced Shakespeare Company (RSC) came together when Winfield suggested his old friend, Adam Long, as a cross-dressing replacement for an injured actress playing Gertrude/Ophelia. When the RSC created The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged), they toured the Renaissance Faire circuit, building support for the project until its premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1987. Winfield left the RSC in 1992; he later edited The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) in paperback, married former RSC costume mistress Sa, and moved back to Los Angeles. He borrowed from his work with the RSC to develop the inventive publicity tour of Brooklyn’s neighborhood pubs, with great success for a small but committed group.

While I commend his efforts to make Shakespeare more lucid to the modern vocabulary and culture, I was a little disappointed that Winfield couldn’t support his adaptations with actual verse. You lose the poetry, he admits, but you can skip right to the sex and killing—the foundations and true essence of all Shakespeare’s plays. Once I got used to the colloquial language and interjected opinions on modern politics, I found myself enjoying the beautifully sticky summer day with like-minded Shakespeare and Winfield groupies. One of the highlights is a chronological play-by-play of the histories:

"Sports are visceral, exciting to watch, there are villains and heroes. And I realized that with kings and queens running up and down the field of battle, the histories are like playing football except you do it with a crown."

When the tour ended at Free Bird Books with Mini-Hamlet, it was refreshing to hear the original poetry (except for a hammy “cheese Danish” joke) and see Winfield’s classical abilities—even if only for the fifty-seven seconds that he performed the four-hour classic. His admiration for Shakespeare is not abrasive or judgmental, but rather a lifestyle and a creative process, which I felt happy to witness in an afternoon well spent.

The Red Hook Shakespeare Crawl with Jess Winfield was presented July 17 and 19, 2008. Check out video footage of the pub crawl, courtesy of Freebird Books (

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