All over the East Village and throughout the city, the sky was grey, the streets were slick, and the rain poured down relentlessly. Nevertheless, pub crawlers sought out the warm welcome and hearty beer awaiting them in the designated first bar of New York Shakespeare Exchange’s ShakesBeer. But ShakesBeer is so much more than a traditional pub crawl. Whether you’re a Shakespearean, a beer enthusiast, or simply looking for an unorthodox outing, the infectious spirit of the Bard takes over for an afternoon.
The New York Shakespeare Exchange is dedicated to reinventing Shakespeare for a modern audience. One of their innovations to make Shakespeare more accessible is the ShakesBeer pub crawl. Over the course of three hours and in four different bars, the members of the crawl witness – although witness may be too soft a word for the experience – four excerpts from four different Shakespeare plays. The scenes are rowdy, raucous, and tailored to a modern ear. The NYSX directors make sure that none of Shakespeare’s sneaky jokes go over anyone’s head. One can only truly appreciate the delightful unsophistication or shockingly contemporary relationships of the Bard when the actors are perched atop a bar in the middle of a crowded Manhattan tavern, gesticulating wildly and thriving on audience validation.
The spring edition of ShakesBeer included scenes from Measure for Measure, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, as well as a mash-up called “The Art of the Pickup” including lines from Shakespearean meet-cutes like Romeo and Juliet. One of the highlights was in Act II, Bar #2, during a scene from As You Like It. Before the ringing of the bell which announces the start of a scene, Orlando (Imran Sheikh) darts around the bar slapping sticky notes (“Swipe right on me, Rosalind?!” one reads) on stools, walls, etc. Rosalind (Melissa Carlile-Price) hops up on a table, hastily applying a makeshift five o’clock shadow to get into her male alias, Ganymede. Orlando is completely lovesick, hanging on “Ganymede’s” every word with puppy-dog eyes. Rosalind is devilish: she teases him, she crawls on the bar on her hands and knees, she even grabs the plastic gun from an arcade game and cocks it for emphasis.
ShakesBeer derives its energy from its audience. True, the bars are sometimes so crowded that you may end up against the wall, or suddenly very friendly with your neighbors. But the immediacy of it is what propels the acts forward. The talented cast must work with what little space they are given, and the audience necessarily becomes part of each scene. The actors break the fourth wall effortlessly, and the audience rewards any improvisations with laughter or cheers. There is a sense that each scene, no matter how rehearsed, is dependent on the crowd in each bar.
By the end of the pub crawl, with a few drinks and a few more friends than you started out with, it’s almost as if Shakespeare himself is in the room. It’s not hard to imagine him leaning on the wall, nursing a draft beer and laughing quietly to himself as the full potential of his comedy reaches new audiences.