“Drink sir, is a great provoker” Drunk Shakespeare delivers unpredictable laughs

by Doug Rapp

Behind an unmarked door on Wabash Street on a narrow stage, actor Courtney Rikki Green downs four shots of whiskey.

She isn’t fighting stage fright—this is part of the show.

Welcome to Drunk Shakespeare, a self-proclaimed drinking club with a Shakespeare problem. The small troupe performs one of his plays with a twist: one actor is drinking. A lot. 

The chosen actor takes four shots before the show, then two more during the performance in a space modeled to look like a hidden library speakeasy. 

“It’s taking a fresh look at Shakespeare and playing with it and letting people know that it’s approachable,” resident director Kathleen Coombs said.

At two recent performances of Macbeth, Courtney Rikki Green imbibed 12 shots of whiskey throughout the night while playing Macduff, Macbeth’s nemesis.

Drunk Shakespeare mainly sticks to the plot but allows plenty of room for improvisation. The actors, including Elizabeth Rentfro and Chelsea David, faithfully recite monologues while breaking into contemporary songs (Radiohead’s “Creep”), pulling audience members on stage or bringing out a birthday cake for actor Jordan Golding, who played Macbeth.  

Thomas Toles is the host, or “designated plot driver” as he calls it.

“I’m there to keep the story somewhat on track and also enable [the actors] at any moment to be their worst selves,” he said.

Green, for her part, held up remarkably well. She did drink hot sauce on stage, made a puppet do inappropriate things and poke Golding in sensitive areas with props, but returned to form to deliver her lines when needed.

“The alcohol helps so much,” Green said. “I’m into it.”

Before joining Drunk Shakespeare, she said the idea of drinking before a performance was unthinkable.

“Now, I’m like ‘Yes!’ That is how I unlock and unfurl and uncover the best parts of my acting ability,” Green said.

Coombs said alcohol helps the actors’ improv, allowing surprises and discoveries for a unique show each time. It all dovetails with Chicago’s reputation as the mecca of improv.

“I think it’s a really great fit for Chicago,” Coombs said. “We’re a theater town, an improv town and a town that loves drinking and having fun.”

Toles said drinking makes Shakespeare more relatable. High school English teachers have told him they wish they could bring classes to see what makes Shakespeare “so special and interesting and fun.” The show is 21 and over.

The diverse audiences at the frequently sold-out shows are approaching Shakespeare from various angles, Toles said.

“That’s a nice feeling when you get the nerdy Shakespeare fan and the jock from the frat house and they both are invested,” he said. “That’s so cool.”

“It’s a unique beast of a show that is truly unlike anything in Chicago,” Green added.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, binge drinking (having 4 or more drinks within 2 hours) has serious health risks such as strokes, liver disease, various cancers plus memory and learning problems (like forgetting lines from MacBeth).

Drunk Shakespeare performs Wednesday through Sunday at 182 N. Wabash Ave. Visit drunkshakespeare.com for showtimes and tickets.

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