“Can we do this all the time,” was the question that got The Rude Mechanicals Medieval and Renaissance Players started.
Shepherd University’s Rude Mechanicals, named after a drama troupe from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” have been performing since 1996. The troupe’s roots are in a class taught by Dr. Betty Ellzey where students performed medieval drama. They enjoyed it so much that they asked Ellzey to continue teaching the class. Now in 2022, the group is still performing.
Ellzey describes herself as a Medievalist, teaching multiple classes about Medieval Literature. Medieval plays focus on the sacred and the profane simultaneously, with messages about God and Christianity woven into comedy street plays, known as cycle plays.
The group performs medieval plays, and Shakespeare but, “Everyone does Shakespeare.”
It’s these medieval dramas that allow for the group to travel. The Rude Mechanicals have performed in many places in the United States such as Florida, California, and D.C. The group has performed internationally on multiple occasions as well, having performed in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Canada.
The first ever Shakespeare show the group performed was “Measure by Measure” in 2001, but since Shakespeare’s works are not from the medieval period, the group did not start regularly performing Shakespeare until 2004.
Shakespeare was, however, clearly inspired by medieval dramas. He took inspiration in elements that were notoriously used in medieval theater, such as combining the sacred and profane.
Shakespeare’s works have also remained startlingly contemporary for works that were written over 400 years ago, allowing for directors to play with his work in ways that are relevant to current issues. Ellzey has certainly been one of these directors.
Spring of 2022 The Rude Mechanical’s performed “Romeo and Juliet” with a gender-bent Romeo. Ellzey, along with the cast, decided to perform a queer version of this story of star-crossed lovers.
“Measure by Measure” was performed around the time of the #MeToo movement. It has themes of sexual assault with a male lead telling a woman that she can get what she wants, if she would just sleep with him. She threatens to tell everyone what he has said to her, and he responds: “Who will believe thee Isabelle?”
In November 2016 the group performed “Othello”. The day after the election results had been announced they did a performance without costumes. The actors performed in all black.
The name of The Rude Mechanicals was recommended by a student in the original class. The students loved the idea of being named after these funny, over the top, and good-hearted players. This company’s students and director do not shy away from the political nature of these stories and manage to turn these historical “out of touch plays” into contemporary and relevant stories for their modern audience.