Staff Writers Caroline Alpi and Celia Bernhardt attended the Extra Credit Ensemble’s production of Bard Overboard at the Soho Playhouse.
As showtime for Bard Overboard drew closer, Columbia and Barnard’s students piled into the Soho Playhouse, a small theater downtown nestled between brownstones. Before entering the theater itself, we were led to a cozy, prohibition-inspired bar, jam-packed with people we half-recognized. After waiting in this “holding room” for a few minutes, the crowd was permitted to enter the theater upstairs, where we settled down until the show began.
Bard Overboard is a play written by Harris Solomon (CC ’22) and directed by Alex Haddad (BC ‘21). Together, the two have spearheaded the new theater group behind the show, Extra Credit Ensemble. Bard Overboard’s Facebook page introduced the ensemble in February of 2020, calling it “a new theater company dedicated to raising up young, bold voices in the Morningside Heights theater community… devoted to developing new works and creating the infrastructure to consult new creatives with how to best share their art with the public.” Bard Overboard is the debut project of this new company—a bold and successful one at that.
The show takes place in “Wonder World,” a tacky, fantasy-themed cruise ship geared towards small children. Bard‘s story centers around five actors playing simple characters in the cruise’s musical theater performance. Steven laments backstage about how as a BFA graduate, he is destined for much greater endeavors than this; Cam tries to become a glamorous influencer in her free time; Jerry is a simple man with the social capital of being the cool guy; India chain-smokes and makes pessimistic quips about capitalism; Tom is sort of an outlier—he delivers nonsensical lines, has a kink for punishment, and is a mystery to his fellow cast members.
The story picks up when the ensemble finds out that Dan Zimmerman, a big-time talent agent, is on board. The crew devises a plan to produce Hamlet, hoping to get signed by Zimmerman and transition into more glamorous acting work. When BJ, an overworked waiter, reveals his acting capabilities, he is recruited to play the starring role, a bitter rivalry ensues between him and Steven. Meanwhile, the jaded Zimmerman is actually on board to ask a favor of his mother, Barbara—a bizarre old woman who has lived on the cruise for a decade, wearing colorful robes, playing bingo, and snubbing reality.
Liam, the astonishingly strange and creepy assistant cruise director, attempts to lay down the law and prevent the actors from carrying out their plot. To top it all off, a twelve-year-old with leukemia named Emma boards the ship for her “Dare to Dream” (think Make-a-Wish) program, and is allowed to shadow the actors throughout their chaotic Shakespearean mission.
Bard Overboard’s actors lit up the stage with their high energy and exaggerated movements. The show used slapstick humor with a script that read like an absurdist take on sitcom comedy and an acting style that emulated cartoons.
Harris Solomon’s Steven shined in his delivery of physical comedy. Nate Jones brought farcical gestures and cartoonish vocalization to the empty-headed character of Tom. Amid the plot’s chaos, Jackson Kienitz gave a refreshingly simple performance as BJ, the waiter who never intended to become an actor. Rupert Fennessy, playing Liam, was prolific in his weird mannerisms—his tongue darted out like a lizard; he blinked, stuttered, and shook, and his menacing cockney British accent was hilarious.
A highlight of the show was the cast’s collaboration as a comedic ensemble. When plotting their secret production of Hamlet, each cast member sketched their ideas on a whiteboard, ending with India drawing male genitalia. When Liam spotted the crude drawing, he declared that there will be no sex parties with the talent agent, receiving hilarious reactions from the cast.
Harris Solomon’s script checked every box: it was hilarious, clever, and emotional. The style of humor was familiar to the mostly Gen-Z audience, reminiscent of sitcoms like “New Girl” and “It’s Always Sunny.” The best-landing jokes featured witty pop culture references and innuendos, made all the funnier when delivered from inside Tom’s weasel costume. Solomon is an expert in pushing boundaries of audience discomfort. In one particular scene, the focus comedically shifted from Emma proclaiming that there are people in the world with worse problems than her leukemia to Steven dramatically lamenting his loss of the role of Hamlet. Solomon also demonstrated his strong grasp on situational comedy when we witnessed Dan being forced into a game of strip bingo with his elderly mother.
Director Alexandra Haddad made bold staging choices that removed barriers between audience and performers. Joel Meyers (Dan) and Rachel Greenfeld (Barbara) sat among the audience to watch the performance of Hamlet and at the end of the play, actors left the cruise ship through the center aisle to cheers from the crowd. The set was divided between the ship’s vaguely Mexican-inspired bar on stage right and the actors’ dressing room on stage left. Scenes flowed freely from one to the next with action often happening simultaneously in the two locations of the set.
After a bizarre production of Hamlet, a Jewish grandma’s rendition of “WAP,” countless dick jokes, and the death of a key character, the ship docked in New York and it was time to tie up the loose ends of the play. Spoiler alert: Steven decided to stay on the cruise ship while BJ headed to New York with a promise of representation from Dan. Although the reasoning behind Steven’s decision wasn’t entirely clear to us, it was sweet that each character had a very specific future laid out for them at the end of the show.
One aspect of the show that arguably fell short was the character progression. The characters were archetypal at the beginning of the show, which worked well with the show’s style. However, as they faced challenges, not every character responded in a way that bolstered this choice. Archetypes broke down and became less consistent, but not always for the sake of character development. With Dan Zimmerman’s character, we see his hard exterior crumble more than his initial characterization would suggest. It was a bit confusing to try to figure out what the true nature of his personality was—but then again, we were meeting him at a very strange time in his life. Joel Meyers did him great justice regardless.
Overall, it was clear from the copious laughter that the audience greatly enjoyed the show. The actors received a standing ovation, and you could feel appreciation for the show filling the room.
Bard Overboard has been in the works since 2020 and was slated to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which was unfortunately canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the show was well worth the wait. After months of hard work, they were able to run a tight ship!
Bard Overboard Poster via Facebook