In one of those lightning-in-a-bottle moments, playwright Stephen Garvey took “The Brady Bunch” and “The Partridge Family” plus the works of William Shakespeare gave them all a creative twirl and came up with the Off-Broadway hit “The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady.”
Garvey remembers the exact moment the big idea hit: He was doing laundry and thinking about Keith Partridge and Marcia Brady as a sort of Romeo and Juliet couple.
‘The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady’ When: Sept. 15-Nov. 27 Where: Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Tickets: $25-$40 (773) 325-1700; mercurytheaterchicago.com
“That just started me thinking who else from these two families would make a good Shakespearean character or fit into a plot point,” Garvey says. “By the time I was out of the rinse cycle, I sort of had the idea set of how the story should go.”
“The Bardy Bunch” debuted at the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival where it won the Overall Excellence Award for Outstanding Ensemble and then moved on to an Off Broadway run. The Chicago run will be the first outside of New York. And while it isn’t officially a part of the citywide celebration Shakespeare 400, “The Bardy Bunch” nevertheless fits right in albeit on the wackier side of things.
A Chicago run was always in the mix, Garvey notes. After all, it’s here that the cult hit “The Real Live Brady Bunch” got its start at Annoyance Theater.
“I saw that show, and it was a real wake-up call,” Garvey recalls. Sitting there with a likeminded audience who also grew up watching the show, he realized, “Wow, there’s other people out there who are into this show. That’s where I discovered this fan culture existed.”
For “The Bardy Bunch,” Garvey lifted about a dozen plotlines, story arcs and references from Shakespeare and folded them into the landscape of the ’70s sitcom world. There’s a bit of Macbeth and his Lady happening with Mike and Carol Brady; Danny Partridge is the show’s Hamlet; and Greg Brady and Laurie Partridge take a turn with themes from “Much Ado About Nothing.”
“It’s a beautiful balance of silly and Shakespeare,” says Annie Watkins, who plays Jan Brady.
Garvey is a prime example of the popular idiom “write what you know.” He grew up in a household where his siblings were split in their devotion to the shows (“We had our wars about which show was better”). For the record, he adored both. Later he studied at the dramatic writing program at New York University (“We were fed a ton of Shakespeare”).
“I guess with all of that swimming in my head it was just a matter of time before these disparate worlds collided,” Garvey says, laughing. “After watching every episode of both shows over and over again, I feel very covetous and protective of both.”
Director Jay Stern, who has been with the show since its initial run, says Garvey really enters into the vernacular of the two sitcoms as well as the complexities of Shakespeare’s world and doesn’t pull any punches.
“He really gets into the minds of the characters in this nightmarish world,” Stern says, adding with laugh, “He knows all these characters in a way that I hope I never do. Although, I think I may be getting there.”
Garvey secured the rights to the Partridge Family songs (including “I Think I Love You” and “I Woke Up in Love This Morning”) as well as songs by the Brady family that aired later in that series run (such as “It’s a Sunshine Day”).
“We were able to use the 15 songs in fun and unexpected ways,” Stern says. “Unlike the Partridges, the Bradys were pretty awful singers. Sort of legendarily bad.”
Garvey also discovered in his research that there was a bit of rivalry going on between the Brady and Partridge kids and that they really didn’t like each other very much.
“When the Bradys started singing it annoyed the actors in the ‘Partridge Family,” Garvey says, adding, “It was fun to take that little bit of reality and fold it into the show as well.”
Garvey admits at first he had way too much material from which to draw: “The first draft of this could have been four hours long which would have tested the patience of even the greatest fan of ‘The Brady Bunch,’ ‘The Partridge Family’ or Shakespeare.” Editing occurred. “I tried to take all this great source material and spin it into something entirely new.”
With all the Shakespearean material was there something that Garvey envisioned using but didn’t make it into the show?
“Originally, there was a lot of ‘King Lear’ that I wanted to use with Mike Brady and his three daughters,” Garvey says with a knowing laugh. “It seemed like a given but ultimately, it didn’t work its way into the final product.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.