Theater is best when it both entertains and educates. If you're very lucky, it also gets you a little drunk. "The Imbible: A Spirited History of Drinking," part of the 2014 New York Fringe Festival, succeeds on all three counts. Though the main festival wrapped last week, this new play, by bartender, consultant and playwright Anthony Caporale, has been included in the Fringe Festival Encore Series, and plays every Friday in September at the SoHo Playhouse.
Reflecting a renewed interest in cocktails, fine spirits and the long history of distilled alcohol, the play gingerly and humorously draws you through approximately 10,000 years of distillation, from the first accidental fermentation of grains (likely) by a random "cavewoman," through to today's craft spirits movement. Along the way, stops are made in ancient Arabia and Medieval Europe where alchemists and monks created distillates, infusions and tinctures to attempt converting lead to gold and heal the sick, 19th century England and America where cocktails really kicked off, Prohibition where production of beer, wine and hard alcohol came to a full stop in America, and the eras immediately following that "Noble Experiment," when American cocktail culture was in a death spiral (Buttery Nipple, anyone?), along with its renaissance today. Along the way the scientific process of fermentation (turning grains and fruits into beer or wine) and distillation (distilling the low-alcohol fermentation into high-proof hooch), and its effects on our bodies is explained via audience participation, on-stage demonstrations and barbershop quartet vignettes.
Wait…what? In case the above paragraph seemed too dry to grab your attention, Caporale wets your appetite (literally) with silly a capella music, wry comedy and yes, free drinks for the audience (one of the few examples in off-Broadway theater where the second act is more fun than the first). Caporale stars in the primary role, while Ariel Estrada, Nicole DiMattei and Ruthellen Cheney provide pantomime costumed support, move set pieces, and fill in the harmonies on both old-timey standards like "Down By the Old Mill Stream" and clever, booze-related adaptations like "Sweet Ethanol" sung to the tune of "Sweet Adeline." Caporale may be the base spirit here in what is nearly a one-person play, but like any good cocktail, the quality of the other ingredients are equally important in creating a balanced and delicious finished product, and the supporting cast (dubbed "The Backwaiters") handles this task well.
"As our newfound appreciation for old drinks grows," Caporale says towards the end of the play, "we're finally starting to rediscover not only how to appreciate alcohol, but why." His passion for the "water of life"and its significance in human cultural history and development is clear. But lest you blame it on the alcohol that you're enjoying the show, Caporale manages to provide plenty of laughs, from costumed sight gags and slapstick to witty observations.
"Prohibition: I'm not a fan. We won't be spending much time here," he says as he introduces the period in America from 1920 to 1933 when the production, sale and consumption of alcohol was banned, and bartending culture fled to Europe and Cuba while organized crime grew powerful on bootlegged whiskey. The reasoning behind glossing over this point in time? "Anything I could possibly tell you about Prohibition has already been told way better by Ken Burns….Essentially, Prohibition was like hitting control-alt-delete on the drinking zeitgeist."
Thanks to the popularity of the show during the Fringe Festival, its run has been extended and moved from the Celebration of Whimsy (C.O.W.) theater space at 21 Clinton to the SoHo Playhouse at 15 Vandam Street.
Thirsty for more? Check out National Spirits Examiner or NY Drinks Examiner.
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FTC Disclaimer: The author sometimes receives product samples for review, which carry no cash value and cannot be re-sold, and sometimes attends press events such as lunches or cocktail parties, designed to promote a given product. The author is not paid by any alcohol manufacturer, retailer or distributor, or provided compensation apart from revenue from an assigning publishing company for editorial publication. Opinions are the author's own. By the way, you should be 21 or older to read this page. Author received comp tickets to review "The Imbible" as a media guest. But in all honesty, there was no way he was missing this play.