Drunk Thespians Bring Shakespeare to the Masses
MIDTOWN — Christina Liu, a classically trained Shakespearean actor, stood in front of an audience for a recent performance of "Macbeth" and prepared to deliver an important monologue.
“I have a line right now, but I have to burp,” said Liu, 23, who had consumed a tequila sour, a whiskey smoothie and four shots of tequila before taking the stage in the character of Macduff during the show at Quinn’s Bar on 44th Street. “It’s a little burp.”
Liu’s alcohol-fueled interruption was not only tolerated, it was rewarded with cheers and laughter at the latest performance by the Drunk Shakespeare troupe, which has been selling out spaces for the last month with its mix of highbrow and lowbrow.
The concept is the brainchild of producer Scott Griffin, who first saw a stage performance of Shakespeare with drunk actors during a trip to Europe. He loved the idea and wanted to take it one step further by transferring the performance into a bar, and introducing improvisation.
Each night one of five cast members gets inebriated before the first act. During the performance, the designated “drunk actor” continues to indulge and controls the flow of the show.
“This is one of the most fun projects I’ve ever worked on,” said Griffin, who said his show is often compared to the Comedy Central show "Drunk History," in which producers interview a series of increasingly soused history buffs about their favorite tales from the past.
“I never watched the show before this but everyone says it’s 'Drunk History' meets Shakespeare,” Griffin said, adding that if the show continues to do well, he plans to take it across the country.
In order to pull off the show, Griffin sought out actors who could deliver a Shakespearean monologue as easily as they could do improv comedy. More than 1,300 people auditioned for 10 positions, he said.
Performing with a drunk thespian has proven to be a welcome challenge to the sober actors. It forces them to work together and rely on each other to keep the show moving. It also makes each performance a unique experience, said actor Whit Leyenbeger, 27.
“When you do a long run you tend to get comfortable and stop hearing what people are saying,” he said. “This keeps the actor on their toes 100 percent of the night.”
During the show, the sober actors are at the mercy of the drunk actor because he or she has the power to call a “drunk point of order” and influence the play however they want. For example, Liu pulled out a can of whipped cream during one of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s most intimate scenes.
The show works because the cast is dedicated to good storytelling, Liu said. If someone forgets his or her lines, someone else steps up. They have all studied Shakespeare and have a lot of respect for the Bard's work.
But while "Drunk Shakespeare" appeals to those familiar with Shakespeare's canon, it's also accessible to those who would not normally go out of their way to see a 400-year-old play, she added.
“I feel like I could bring my fiancé to this,” said Kristina Karnes, a middle school English teacher from Virginia. “He doesn’t usually like going to plays.”
The setting is also more comfortable for theater neophytes. There is no stage at Quinn’s Bar, so the five cast members weave past tables and bar stools during the show.
From the beginning, when the drunk actor invites an audience member to taste a shot in order to prove that it contains alcohol, the audience is included in the show.
Each actor has had to figure out his or her tolerance level during the run’s first month. They don’t want to lose control, but they want to give the audience a memorable performance. It’s been a learning experience for many of them.
“I don’t remember the second half of the show but I was told I was very funny,” Leyenberger said of a show last week. “Apparently I didn’t drop a single line.”