A Brief History of Beer begins, quite appropriately, by inviting the audience to drink beer. This is not an average toast, however, as the audience is encouraged to really taste the beer—exploring its effervescence, hoppiness, and temperature. Thus begins William Glenn and Trish Parry’s wacky journey through time and space to simultaneously delve into the origins of beer and save it from some unspecified nefarious threat. Despite the plot’s silliness, Glenn and Parry are charming to watch under Jeffrey Mayhew’s direction as they wholeheartedly commit to the ridiculousness of their show.
A Brief History of Beer’s irreverence towards formal plot structure and performance style is made clear from the top of the show. Design-wise, the show leans heavily on a random assortment of projected images and videos, creating effects such as Glenn and Parry’s “spaceship,” lyrics to sing-alongs, and video footage of Glenn and Parry being silly. The performers don Star Trek–inspired outfits, inviting us to join them on their spaceship to explore the history of beer. Glenn and Parry also indicate that some evil forces are threatening the existence of beer, though the identity of those forces remain undefined. They acknowledge this plot inconsistency, establishing an atmosphere of self-referential absurdity. They are also unafraid to acknowledge technical malfunctions (of which there were several), as well as latecomers joining the show at random. Mayhew’s direction allows Glenn and Parry to work the room like comics, and, despite the chaos of this makeshift aesthetic, they manage to pull the whole thing off.
Having enjoyed a two-year run at Under St. Marks, A Brief History of Beer has become an East Village (and Off-Off-Broadway) mainstay. One thing that A Brief History of Beer does extremely well is facilitate audience participation. Many audiences balk at the idea of participatory theater, but by harnessing the jovial qualities of beer, Mayhew, Glenn, and Parry make audience participation fun (and not scary or intimidating in the slightest). This is refreshing in comparison with more confrontational, experimental productions that aim to discomfort the audience rather than welcome them into to the fold. Goofiness is key in the participatory moments of A Brief History of Beer: we are instructed to wave our arms wildly every time Glenn and Parry’s spaceship takes off, intermittently invited to sing drinking songs, and even welcomed on stage to play along in some old school drinking games.
Despite its title, A Brief History of Beer does not contain a great deal of intelligible information on the origin and evolution of beer. The journey begins in Mesopotamia and makes a quick pit stop in medieval Europe; but overall, a coherent historical narrative fails to take shape amid the show’s interactive moments and comic bits. In fact, the more compelling tidbits of trivia are found in the show’s contemporary references. One evolving skit entitled “This Month in Beer” (akin to Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” news parody) hilariously sums up the different beer-related events of the world from the past month. Another charming video sequence follows Glenn and Parry on a real-life past visit to Oktoberfest, where they interacted with various drunkards and, of course, drank a boatload of beer.
In any case, it is best to attend A Brief History of Beer with the goal of meeting a few new drinking buddies (rather than obtaining some deeper understanding of the origins of beer-making). The type of communal drinking that this show encourages is a fantastic alternative to drinking at home or in a regular bar, so if beer-drinking is one of your favorite weekend pastimes, you should definitely give this quirky show a try.
A Brief History of Beer is performed at Under St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place between First Avenue and Avenue A) various Saturdays of the month (except March 2017) at 10:30 p.m. A schedule and tickets ($12) are available online at www.horsetrade.info or by calling (888) 596-1027.