Let’s get right to the point here: ShakesBEER rocks.
New York Shakespeare Exchange’s seasonal pub crawl through Hell’s Kitchen is just a ton of fun. Top-notch acting and directing accented by smart scene selections and dramaturgy that is light-hearted without sacrificing rigorous engagement with the material combines to produce a wonderful afternoon of theater. And the drinks? The drinks are great too.
The concept of this ribald city afternoon of classical theater is simple: gather at a bar, grab a drink, enjoy a pop-up performance where several actors take over the space of small barrooms to transform them from watering holes to mise-en-scène, finish your drink and move on to another bar a few blocks away to repeat. The three-hour tour includes four bars, four scenes, four drinks (well… four drink tickets: you are welcome to order as much as you’d like beyond that), and lots of good times.
This year’s crawl capitalizes on a politically heated cultural moment by highlighting scenes of political tension and turmoil. Moments from Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, Henry VI, and Julius Caesar, are joined by one scene from Spanish playwright Lope de Vega’s 1619 Fuente Ovejuna to ponder the complex and ever-tenuous relationship between the state and the people.
New York Shakespeare Exchange’s curatorial instincts are strong: each scene benefits from the involvement of a boisterous community. Typically, theater companies face the challenge of getting enough bodies on stage to represent the grand public displays of Shakespeare’s most political moments, but the ShakesBEER crew doesn’t have that problem: bar patrons are happy to step into that role.
The afternoon opens at Jasper’s Tap House (W.51st and 9th Ave.) with a scene from Coriolanus of rabble-rousing upstarts challenging the haughty, smug government officials over distribution of grain. Ariel Neema Blake and Kim Krane (who will later join forces in Fuente Ovejuna to rebuff righteously the aggressive and creepy advances of masculine sexual power on the bar top of the Waylon in a wonderful proto #MeToo moment) stand on opposite sides of Jasper’s vying for the favor of the people around them, as Cody LeRoy Wilson mounts a high-top in the middle of the room and unleashes a torrent of proletariat anger against government privilege. Soon, Chris White will join the proceedings as Coriolanus, awash in upper-class disregard for complaints of lowly. All of this plays out to a room full of afternoon drinkers who are encouraged to raise their voice in favor and derision of the arguments, just as Shakespeare’s groundlings would have done. The scene can become a tiresome rehearsal of Roman politics on stage, but in a Hell’s Kitchen bar it is alive and urgent.
A similar spirit runs throughout the rest of the afternoon’s three scenes. As director Ross Williams does at Jasper’s, Cristina Lundy at the Gaf (W. 48th and 9th), Katie Kay Chelena at the Waylon (W. 50th and 10th), and Brian Demar Jones at Perdition (W. 48th and 10th) will each smartly capitalize on the unique conditions of their environments. Lundy’s scene from Titus Andronicus at the Gaf is especially insightful and fun for its coy modernizations and boundless energy.
The best quality of ShakesBEER is its ability to master the balance between skillful performance and great fun. Just because this excellent collection of performers and directors are working on bar tops and tables in front of a crowd of day drinkers (some of whom just innocently wandered into these bars for some libations, totally unaware that they’d be treated to pop-up Shakespeare) does not mean that they will avoid crafting wonderful, nuanced performances. And just because they are performing classical theater does not mean that these actors in casual dress and attitude cannot join the fun emanating through a pub crawl.
This is a production that celebrates and realizes its company’s signature hashtag: #ShakespeareForEveryone. ShakesBEER is Shakespeare for the people, and just a great Saturday afternoon.
You have one more chance to catch this season’s crawl on Saturday September 29th. Ticket information is here.