Last year, Anthony Ascione performed in The Taming of the Shrew, though he doesn't recall how the production ended. One minute he was on stage at the Union Club wearing a pink dress and reading Bianca's lines—"Am I your bird? I mean to shift my bush and then pursue me as you draw your bow"—and the next minute he was chowing down on a slice of late-night pizza at the corner of Higgins and Alder.
"I must have stumbled down to Pie Hole," he says. "I'd never been there before, and I thought I'd found a magical new dimension."
Such is the unpredictable nature of Shakespeare Under the Influence, where legitimate Shakespeare-loving and theater-degree-holding actors perform the Bard's works in costume while drinking in a bar. The event began in 2014 at the Badlander and eventually moved to the Union Club, but the idea has remained the same: Shakespeare isn't an easy sell these days, so why not offer it with a side of alcohol?
Under the Influence actors don't memorize their lines, instead reading from scripts on their phones or tablets, and often they show up the night of the performance without a single rehearsal. The playbill lists the actors and their roles, plus their "preferred" libation, so the audience can, if they like, buy an actor a drink (or the whole cast a round). In addition, Shakespeare Under the Influence is a drinking game, so there are always a few designated words in the script that prompt both audience and cast members to drink. (For Romeo and Juliet, the magic words were "Romeo" and "Juliet," which didn't make staying sober easy.) All of which is how Ascione drank too many whiskey cokes and fell into a black hole.
On a recent Thursday at the Dram Shop, I met with a few cast members and the director of Shakespeare Under the Influence, Carrie Ann Mallino, to talk over drinks, naturally. Mallino is the sole proprietor of Sunshine Unlimited, an independent theater company with a penchant for fully staged (and generally sober) Shakespeare productions, though she's also produced Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and an original play, Ruby, written by her father.
"I have a lot of props in the trunk of my car," she says. "I carry them with me everywhere, so if necessary we can do a play any time. Just hand us a script."
Also at the table is Ascione, Lynn Solomon and Colton Wedding, all of whom have experience in both serious staged theater and Shakespeare Under the Influence. They're discussing their next drunken production, The Tempest, one of Shakespeare's most magical plays. Specifically, they're trying to figure out the logistics of navigating the Union Club's tiny stage, drunk, with mic stands.
"We don't know what we're supposed to do with them," Ascione says. "We're afraid we'll knock them over. Do we go up and talk in them, or gather round them, or what?"
"We're not doing microphones this time," Mallino says in mock exasperation. "I can't take it."
"Let's do megaphones," Wedding practically yells.
"Drunk people with megaphones?" Solomon asks.
- photo courtesy Downtown Brown Photography
- Anthony Ascione performs as Macduff in Shakespeare Under the Influence’s Macbeth.
Mallino leans in and says, "Not only do we get drunk as the audience buys us drinks, it's the audience that gets drunker. They are encouraged. This is not highbrow theater, this is theater for the people—in the bars. And we encourage people to jeer and cheer, though we do draw the line at throwing things."
In 2016, Mallino produced a stellar and sober version of Richard III featuring Howard Kingston and Eric Prim as the two-faced, Gollum-esque Richard. She's also a master of editing scripts. She pared down Richard III to highlight the family-focused scenes and gave the production the feel of a telenovela. For Shakespeare Under the Influence, she has to cut plays to an hour to make them go down easy for the bar crowd. The audience has to loosen up to make it fun, but it's up to the actors to find a balance between entertainment and incomprehensible madness.
"You have your script on your phone or tablet," Ascione says. "And you've got your drink under your arm, and your sword—and you're drunk—so you're trying to keep your place. And the stage at the Union is a catwalk."
The actors have also learned that it doesn't seem to matter what drink they claim to prefer. Wedding says he always lists Cold Smoke, but audience members inevitably send him shots of Fireball whiskey or tequila instead, to his detriment. One night, during a production of Hamlet, the cast received three rounds of shots in a row. Mallino remembers that night, if only because she was wearing a bridesmaid's dress over jeans and had to race after the performance to the bathroom, where her zipper got stuck. "I basically wet my pants," she says. "Luckily I was too drunk to care."
What keeps the production fun is that the actors make a special effort to invite the audience into the world of Shakespeare despite the difficulty of the language. In Two Gentlemen of Verona, which they renamed Two Drunks of Verona, Solomon played the Duke as a John Wayne character, referring to other characters as "pilgrim." In The Taming of the Shrew (renamed The Taming of the Brew), Ascione played Bianca with a Jersey Shore accent. In Hamlet, an actor played Ophelia as a valley girl.
But it's the tragedies that end up working the best with drunken comedy.
"They are a lot easier to cut than the comedies, and they are hysterical under the right circumstances," Mallino says. "Macbeth and Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet have all translated beautifully to an hour and 10 minutes of pure hilarity."
Also part of the fun is that the drunk actors take the opportunity to go off script or explain parts of the play in ways one normally doesn't see in a theater production. No sexual innuendo goes unremarked upon, which can end up being educational for the crowd. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, "kissing the stones" is a 15th century joke about oral sex, for instance.
"So during that part, someone will stop the play and make sure nobody missed the reference," Mallino says.
Last year, Mallino added one more aspect to the chaos: Audience members can buy $5 raffle tickets in hopes of winning a small part in the production.
It all sounds like pure debauchery, but Mallino and the cast insist that at root, it's about sharing Shakespeare with people who normally would never go see a play.
"When the guy at Jiffy Lube says, 'Hey! You're the play lady,' I am proud," Mallino says. "That is the audience I'm looking for. It's a way to do what Shakespeare always meant to do, which was to entertain the masses. And the hope is, it will translate to someone wanting to sit through a full-length play for the fun of it."
Shakespeare Under the Influence presents The Tempest at the Union Club Mon., March 13, at 7 PM. Free.This article was updated Thu., March 9, to reflect that the play is free to attend.