Icy eyes ablaze with a madcap fury, a middle-aged man clad in a knight’s weathered garments stands erect before an oddly-placed, red automobile. He lifts his chosen weapon – a blunt, wooden instrument – and shouts at his offender with all the ire within his not-entirely-sane heart, “Seest thou what happens, Laurence?”
He strikes the automobile.
“Seest thou what happens, Laurence, when thou firk’st a stranger betwixt the buttocks?”
He strikes the temporally-displaced on object within his reach – and then again, and again and again.
As the audience erupts in laughter for the umpteenth time within the hour, the players adorning the stage at 85 E 4th St. prepare for their next comedic assault, giving their hungry listeners nary a moment to recuperate.
This is precisely what happens when the Dude meets the Bard.
On March 18, DMTheatrics’ American Shakespeare Factory opened the official world premiere of Adam Bertocci’s Shakespearean adaptation of a Coen Brothers’ cult classic, which he entitled “Two Gentlemen of Lebowski,” directed marvelously by Frank Cwiklik.
The Dude became the Knave (Josh Mertz) and Walter Sobchak was then Sir Walter of Poland (Bob Laine), a veteran of a war in the darkest jungles of the Orient. Various other changes have been made to the dramatis personae and the result is a marriage significantly happier than that of Sir Jeffrey of Lebowski (Ed Lane).
Brother Seamus (Phai) actually was an Irish monk, and the famous pornographic tape was a live performance.
The story remains the same: Two hired thugs (Craig Kelton Peterson and Dan Phai) inquire “whither the money, Lebowski” as they soil the Knave’s beloved rug. He procures a replacement from the intended recipient of the thrashing and is thereafter involved in a strange game of theft and ransom.
“The Big Lebowski” fans would undoubtedly be ecstatic to see their favorite slacker donning a sixteenth century-style garb, and Shakespeareans have the option of hearing their prized verse emboss the lips of a cocktail-loving bowler and ill-tempered knight.
In fact, the combination of the two seemingly contradictory genres results in a curiously delightful mixture of Elizabethan language and culture, with the idiosyncrasies of contemporary bowling, the occasional bit of cannabis and a generous helping of White Russians.
Although the remainder of the run is presently sold out (with guests flying in from as far as the United Kingdom and Sweden to catch a glimpse), the company is furiously fighting for the rights to produce it again.
This does not dissuade its cast from presenting performance after performance filled with wit, passion and the pinnacle of absurdity nightly.
Mertz was absolutely lovable as the aimless Knave. With a decidedly more shrill inflection than his contemporary counterpart, Jeff Bridges, his protagonist was so charismatically played that the unlikely luck surrounding the loafer was actually believable.
Laine was a powerful force as his faithful and undeniably unstable companion. With resounding energy and considerable stamina, his incarnation of Walter was certainly every bit as laudable as John Goodman’s.
Bryanna Tyson seemed to channel Julianne Moore as the feminist artist, Maude Lebowski. Possessive of a grace and manner indicative of the character’s status, she carried the role admirably.
It would be difficult to find a flaw with any involved in the production, however, as each is certainly worthy of praise. Sir Donald (Stewart Urist) was amicably bumbling as the most timid of the nine-pin trio; the nihilists (Peterson, Phai and Devin Landin) were each utterly fantastic and hilarious in all their roles, as they played a variety of characters throughout.
Even the staging was comically commendable, as Lady Bonnie Lebowski (Becky Byers – who is an astounding dancer, as well) was seen being hysterically chased back and forth throughout the stage by the increasingly nervous Mr. Brandt (Matt Gray); and the scene in which the troublesome trio would have been seen feasting on bountiful bovine was cleverly avoided with the use of a funny rant from a particularly stressed director via projected text.
The play itself is absolutely brilliant, as it not only follows the plot, but actually boasts iambic pentameter and couplet-filled soliloquies, as though penned by the Bard himself after a particular heinous bender filled with a night of vodka, crème and coffee liqueur.
The only truly profound regret comes with the knowledge of the run’s end. As Sir Walter of Poland declared in anguish, “Now cracks a bowler’s heart,” so does a spoiled viewer’s. With a show this commendable, the news of its potential demise inspires the heaviest of hearts.
But for now, carrying a love for nine-pin, creamy drink and justice in his own, “The Knave abideth.”
Photo courtesy of Frank Cwiklik