Reviewed by David Emerson
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:4 (#333) in April 2010.]
One of the great things about Shakespeare’s plays is how infinitely adaptable they are. Not counting modern retellings like West Side Story or Kiss Me Kate, there are still a lot of different ways to do the originals. I’ve seen Richard III set among organized-crime families in London’s East End, Romeo and Juliet in the context of L.A. street gangs, King Lear cast as the CEO of LearCorp, and As You Like It transposed to 19th-century Japan. Since the original texts are almost completely devoid of stage directions (save entrances & exits) and descriptions, directors are free to impose their own visions onto the scripts. Now cartoonist Brooke McEldowney has gone one better, and presented A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a film noir Busby Berkeley musical screwball sex comedy – in comic-strip form!
McEldowney, creator of the stylish and sexy newspaper strip “9 Chickweed Lane,” started an equally stylish and sexy online-only comic a few years ago called “Pibgorn.” At first it was a cute little thing about a cute little fairy named Pibgorn, but Brooke realized he could do a lot of things online that no newspaper syndicate would allow, in terms of format as well as content. In a sequence running from February 2006 through March 2007, he took his characters from “Pibgorn,” filled out the cast with some “9 Chickweed Lane” characters, and at the rate of three panels a week, had them run through Shakespeare’s most famous comedy. The completed play was finally collected in book form, with a few panels added and a few altered, and is now available directly from the author/artist (one can order via email at firstname.lastname@example.org).
The art is beautiful. McEldowney mixes a cartoony line with exquisite colors and shading, creating an unusual effect that manages to be both 2- and 3-dimensional at the same time. He varies his layout effectively, sometimes cramming a lot of small talking-head panels onto a page, sometimes juxtaposing two or three oddly-shaped panels, sometimes filling the whole page with one scene. Even judging it simply as a comic, it is impressively done.
But the truly wonderful thing about Pibgorn Rep is the interpretation of the characters and settings. He has taken a few liberties with gender, so that Hermia’s father Egeus becomes her mother Egea, Bottom and the other “rude mechanicals” (except for Peter Quince) are all chorus girls, and most importantly, Puck is female (“played” by Pibgorn herself); this last substitution creates an erotic component to the relationship between Puck and Oberon, and adds dimension to the Oberon/Titania antagonism. Athens has become a fairly modern city (approximately 1940’s era), and the wood where the lovers run off to has become “The Wood,” a nightclub/hotel. Oberon dresses (and acts) like a Mafia don. Titania’s “Indian boy” is no child, but a dark and handsome gigolo (which makes much more sense out of Oberon’s issue with him).
Did I mention Busby Berkeley? There’s a production number when Titania retires and bids her fairies sing her to sleep. They come strutting out as scantily-clad Vegas showgirls, and the tuxedo-clad Indian “boy” rises from the grand piano he’s been playing and does a tap dance that ends with a strip tease. The “Pyramus and Thisby” playlet at the end also ends with a chorus line, complete with top hats and canes and jazz hands.
This is the sexiest interpretation of Shakespeare I’ve ever seen. Couples don’t just kiss, they make out passionately. There are plenty of butts groped, thighs grabbed, skirts raised, and heads thrown back with closed eyes and gasping mouths. It doesn’t hurt that the gorgeously-drawn female leads spend most of their time in evening gowns.
There’s some very funny comedy, too. Dirty looks and double-takes abound; McEldowney comments on the spoken lines with often-hilarious facial expressions and body language. The scene near the end when Theseus comes upon the sleeping lovers is classic slapstick that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. But in spite of all these alterations and reinterpretations, Shakespeare still shines through. Like most directors, McEldowney had to make some cuts here and there, but all the words on the page are the original lines, and they all make sense in their new contexts. This is a worthy addition to the large and growing body of Shakespeare plays produced for today’s audiences.