On Saturday as over a million people gathered for the Women’s March in Washington D.C. and in cities around the country, a subtler act of resistance was afoot in Lower Manhattan. Dozens of people gathered for the New York Shakespeare Exchange’s theatrical pub crawl “Shakesbeer,” consuming a one-to-one ratio of pints of beer and scenes penned by the bard.
The festivities began at Shorty’s on Pearl Street, a few blocks from Federal Hall where George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States. The dark cloud of the latest inauguration hung in the air as patrons piled in to the sports bar and ordered Philly-style cheese steaks. I sipped a crisp Coney Island Mermaid Pilsner waiting for the action to erupt. All of the bar is a stage for these DIY performances and actors often climb onto tables and squeeze into small spaces, delivering lines at such close proximity that you can sometimes feel their breath. Halfway through a madcap scene from “The Comedy of Errors,” actress Kim Krane as Luciana ejected my girlfriend from her barstool to get closer to her lover, the Antipholus of Syracuse, with an improvised line “he’s mine!”
Before the scene began artistic director Ross Williams welcomed the crowd and explained the company’s mission to use Shakespeare to “generate conversations throughout the world.” He also noted that each scene would end with the old English exclamation “huzzah!” In the scenes that followed, men were mistaken for women, poor people for rich ones, and racially diverse casting further highlighted the arbitrary discrimination that marks our history.
In a scene from Cymbeline staged at Route 66 Smokehouse, the nefarious Iachimo sails from a distant land (the other side of the bar) propelled by a sail (bar napkin) to gaze at the woman of his desire (an unsuspecting man who’s dressed up with a wig and jewelry). There’s a palpable fear that the “predator in chief,” as actress/activist Jane Fonda refers to the new president, won’t protect the rights of people who fall outside of the white male cisgender category. Every laugh and uproar on Saturday felt charged in defiance to a narrowing view of humanity.
A mash up scene of Henry VI, Part 2 and “Julius Caesar” in the cozy upstairs room of Beckett’s began with shouts for Jack Cade and his rebellion against unpopular King Henry VI. Cade enters and bellows, “for our enemies shall fall before us, inspired with the spirit of putting down kings and princes.” It didn’t feel like distant history and the actors were wearing shirts emblazoned with slogans like “I’m with Cade.” At one point, a man uttered “drain the swamp” sarcastically in a beat between the actors’ lines. I can’t say if this was coordinated, but it felt right.
There’s a visceral energy that pulsates through all NYSX’s scenes—the company is also behind the video series “The Sonnet Project; which features one directed by Paste Movies Editor Michael Dunaway—and shatters any austere image of how Shakespeare should be performed. By the time the fourth and final bar and beer roll around, the edges of time and space blur, and I feel transported to Elizabethan times when crowds of regular people would gather for premieres of plays we now revere and guzzle beers as a community. Huzzah!
Christopher Kompanek is a New York-based arts and culture writer. His theater features and reviews have appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Time Out New York, the Washington Post, and the Village Voice.