There was a lot of Internet buzz last fall surrounding a singular project on the New York theater scene: Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, a blending of the Coen Brothers’ cult classic, The Big Lebowski, and Shakespeare’s canon. The film, released in 1998 to mediocre ticket sales, soon developed a cult following from midnight screenings and word of mouth. Lebowski Fest started in Kentucky in 2002 and spread nationwide and across the pond, encompassing the culture of the movie and encouraging people to dress in white bathrobes and slippers, sip on white Russians, and say the lines of the movie as it plays. DMTheatrics’ American Shakespeare Factory and Horse Trade Theater Group’s Two Gentlemen of Lebowski is a faithful translation of the movie into a rendering of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan language, even to the point of ludicrous.
Adam Bertocci’s script takes the audience step by step through the plot points of the movie in its newly found Elizabethan vocabulary, but some things—like Walter’s phrasing of being in the mud in Vietnam—require wordy or confusing translations, phrases that our modern culture know automatically but don’t fit with the Elizabethan world. Bertocci does keep some of the modern language for characterization: The Knave, an adaptation of the film’s main character The Dude, often says, “I am The Knave, man!” or “’Zwounds, man!” keeping with the original phrasing, much to our delight.
Bertocci has taken close study of the Elizabethan language, rightly turning Walter’s rants and musings into verse, suggesting that these diatribes are more than just foul-mouthed raves from a veteran. Perhaps it’s also a look into the indecency of acknowledging our roles and places in society. Or not.
The modern playwright also nods to many famous Shakespeare lines, from Dogberry’s comprehension of being an ass to Jacques’ seven stages of man to many one-liners from the entire canon. Most are delivered effortlessly, though a few are a wink and a rib-jab to the audience, clunky but endearing. Some other characters are translated as well: Brandt is a puritan, a good adjustment of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s stiff and judgmental lackey of the Big Lebowski; Sir Walter is a veteran of the Crusades, though the act wears thin; The Knave as a slumming ne’er-do-well in social hierarchy limbo is pretty faithful to the original.
Director Frank Cwiklik seems to have his actors represent the characters in the movie as portrayed by the film actors, for many of the characterizations are almost spot-on imitations. Josh Mertz as The Knave has the high panicked shrills that come naturally to Jeff Bridges as The Dude, but he unfortunately lacks his true baritone mellowness. (Let it be noted that the Coen Brothers said that they based most of The Dude on Bridges himself.) Bob Laine takes on a formidable John Goodman as Walter Sobchak, but Sir Walter doesn’t evoke the same sympathy as Goodman’s Walter is sometimes apt to do. Brianna Tyson as Maude Lebowski has a strong sense of character from and beyond Julianne Moore’s interpretation, even though many of Tyson’s scenes are compromised by cinematic technology that can’t be reproduced on stage.
In fact, the most enjoyable scenes are those that are impossible to mimic exactly from the movie: the dream sequences are imaginative and tight; the porno movie as a play within a play is an excellent device, although difficult to understand if one hasn’t seen the movie; the “ninepin” scene with Joshua/Jesus is hilarious, mostly due to Matt Gray’s comedic interpretation; and the In-N-Out cinematic interlude is an audience-accepted substitution for the real deal.
Steph Cathro matches the film’s costuming as closely as she can, especially considering the wacky dream scenes and the quick changes that are clumsy moving from screen to stage. The lighting, however downtown or low budget funky this production may be, is inexcusable. The entire front quarter of the stage is unlit despite a light grid that seems adequate for the job, and the follow spots are so late that I would have preferred not to have the distraction. The color lighting is off, perhaps in hopes of imitating the cinematic lighting effects, but it just makes the stage look dingy.
But apart from the stage production faithfully following the film at its heels, I began to think on the question, What is a hero? Christopher Reeve said, “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” Some might argue that The Dude is a hero in this sense, plucked from obscurity to become the slacker role model that fans have come to admire and emulate. Personally, I have decided it doesn’t matter. I would venture to say, in the words of this production’s Chorus via Puck, “For never was there more glee, / Than this of Geoffrey and the Big Lebowski."
The Two Gentlemen of Lebowski plays at the Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street, New York, NY 10003. Information can be found at http://www.dm-theatrics.com/ or at http://www.horsetrade.info/.