‘Drunkle Vanya’ at LiveArtDC

When I arrived to see Drunkle Vanya last night, the first thing I did was order a vodka. I don’t typically drink before I review, but in this circumstance it seemed part of my job, since the show was being done by actors mingling among audience members downstairs at The Pinch bar in Columbia Heights and would, I was told, entail much imbibing. Little did I know.
The cast of 'Drunkle Vanya': L to R: Karina Hilleard (Vanya), Jon Jon Johnson (Waffles), Jenna Berk (Sonya), Rasik Ohal (Alexander), and J. Rebecca Ellis (Yelena). Photo by  Susanna Murley.
The cast of ‘Drunkle Vanya’: L to R: Karina Hilleard (Vanya), Jon Jon Johnson (Waffles), Jenna Berk (Sonya), Rasik Ohal (Alexander), and J. Rebecca Ellis (Yelena). Photo by Susanna Murley.

Drunkle Vanya is an actual play in the sense that there is a script and actors know their lines and play named characters. It was adapted and created by Lori Walter Hudson, a cofounder of Three Day Hangover, the New York City theater company that first produced it. The story is loosely Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya but with interpolated pop culture references, songs, and drinking games. With the narrative rejiggered to provide frequent occasions for the characters and (some audience members) to throw back shots and chug whole bottles of booze (to raucous encouragement from the crowd), there wasn’t much Chekhovian sublimity, but there was a heck of a lot of levity.

The audience was loving it.

LiveArtDC, the innovative crew of artists who concocted this immersive iteration ofUncle Vanya, is on to something. In the words of Drunkle Vanya Director Lee Liebeskind: “If the people won’t come to the theater, then let’s bring the theater to the people.” Last year the company did a similar number on Romeo and Juliet—an acclaimed production, which I did not see, called R&J: Star-Cross’d Death Match, performed at another DC bar. Based on the company’s choices so far, one can reasonably infer that “the people” Liebeskind refers to are the elusive millennials whom every big theater in town is trying to attract. To define that demographic more accurately, it’s habitués of hip ‘n’ happening dives.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Rebecca Ellis (Yelena). Photo by Susanna Murley.
Rebecca Ellis (Yelena). Photo by Susanna Murley.

The playful cast was enjoyable to watch as they maneuvered among the patrons, earnestly declaiming their characters’ assorted angsts and confronting each other as up-close and personal as performance art gets: Karina Hilleard (Vanya), Kevin Hasser (Astrov), Rebecca Ellis (Yelena), Jenna Berk (Sonya), Rasik Ohal (Alexander), and Jon Jon Johnson (Waffles). Musician Bob Manzo, introduced as “The Cheery Orchard,” accompanied on his guitar about a half dozen interspersed songs that had the delighted audience singing along.

The upshot? If your thirst is for theater and you want a fun time, drink in Drunkle Vanya.

I have to advise, though, that the actors’ own intake of alcohol during the performance is extreme, and the shots and bottles all come directly from the actual bar in the room, not from an offstage prop table. My companion was certain the cast’s beverages were nonalcoholic, as is usually the case in live theater. But often the same drinks were served simultaneously to audience members, who evidently were swilling the real thing. So if the cast’s beverages were fake, there was some truly impressive sleight of hand going on.

This show is for 21 and up only.

Running Time: About 2 hours 15 minutes, including an intermission.


Drunkle Vanya presented by LiveArtDC plays through April 25, 2015, at The Pinch3548 14th Street, in Washington, DC. Tickets are available online or at the door one hour before showtime.


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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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