A war of wits: ‘The Mari Lwyd,’ an immersive theatrical bar crawl, debuts at Industry City

man reads with mari lwyd horse skull puppet
Actor Simon Fraser performs during a theatrical holiday pub crawl, “The Mari Lwyd,” at Industry City.
Paul Frangipane

Last Wednesday, as locals sipped their drinks at Fort Hamilton Distillery in Industry City, a man stood up and, in a heavy Welsh accent, welcomed the crowd to the Mari Lwyd. He hoisted a horse skull shrouded in a white sheet over his head and issued a challenge: Who, there, was strong enough in verse to carry the mask?

It was the start of a new immersive play presented by brooklynONE and Dialogue With Three Chords: “The Mari Lwyd” bar crawl and play, inspired by an old Welsh wintertime tradition.

man reading from script in bar
The play kicked off at the Fort Hamilton Distillery, where actors and the audience sat and sipped their drinks as Fraser issued his challenge. Photo by Paul Frangipane

The Mari Lwyd predates Christianity and is certainly stranger than most Christmas traditions. In Wales, a group of men would set out into their town in midwinter bearing a horse skull on a stick, draped in a white sheet. They’d go door to door, challenging their neighbors to a war of wits and poetry. If the person who answered the door lost, they’d have to let the Mari Lwyd in and give them food and drinks.

On Dec. 14, the Mari Lwyd paraded through Industry City, trailed by a small crowd as it stopped at three different bars and challenged actors within each one to a battle of words. 

The idea to turn the tradition into a play-and-pub-crawl came from playwright Stephen Gracia of Dialogue With Three Chords, said Anthony Marino, co-founder of brooklynONE.

“He wrote a script all in verse, all rhyming and stuff, and we went to three different locations,” Marino said. “We like those kind of niche, off the beaten path kind of holiday traditions. The next thing we’re doing is a Krampus play. We love Santa Claus, too, but he gets enough credit.”

stephen weinblatt
Stephen Weinblatt played a protagonist of sorts in the Mari Lwyd, and held the horse skull for most of the performance. Photo by Paul Frangipane

Since its inception, brooklynONE has focused on smaller, experimental works — and since late 2020, they’ve been producing works at Industry City — including a production of Romeo & Juliet in one of the complex’s courtyards last summer.

The myriad bars inside Industry City were the perfect setting for the bar crawl, Marino thought, and the bar owners agreed. Once it was all settled, Gracia, who had already written the script, made some tweaks to make it specific to each space — starting in the Fort Hamilton Distillery.

Actors settled in with their highlighted scripts beside their drinks as they waited for actor Simon Fraser to kick off the action.

“[Gracia] is just a phenomenal, phenomenal playwright, he was like a poetry major in college, the brain, the way it works is amazing,” Marino said. “We started off in the first bar, unassuming, everyone just there having drinks. We had our actors planted in the bars, it was very naturalistic, organic.” 

Once Fraser introduced the Mari Lwyd and asked who could carry the horse head, Steven Weinblatt, who played a protagonist of sorts, accepted the challenge — and won, taking hold of the skull before the group headed to their second location, The Frying Pan. 

man carries horse head through courtyard in the mari lwyd
The troupe carried the horsehead through Industry City, followed by a crowd of about 25 people. Photo by Paul Frangipane

There, he was met by Anthony DeVito, who challenged him for the skull — and lost. The troupe was accompanied by musicians from The Pigeon Pack, who strummed Christmas carols and sing-a-longs on their instruments as the story unfolded.

Gracia crafted the horse skull from a zombie-esque horse mask purchased on Amazon — no actual horse remains were disturbed in the creation of the Mari Lwyd — “his algorithm, though, is probably all messed up on Amazon,” Marino joked.

Attendees had to reserve their free spots to attend the performance, but there were regular patrons sitting in each bar the Mari Lwyd visited that night, and most ended up enjoying the surprise play. One woman, who was having a drink with a friend headed to the airport, said she may attend next week’s performance of “The Krampus.”

In The Frying Pan, a group of men started out “looking at each other like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” Marino said.

musicians perform during the mari lwyd
Musicians with Pigeon Pack performed music by Caitlin McCullen and strummed Christmas carols during the performace. Photo by Paul Frangipane

“By the end, they were toasting with us, and they were cheers-ing, and they just thought it was a riot … they’re out, a couple of buddies having beers and eating food and all of the sudden, this sort of verse rap battle starts happening with a horse skull. They had a great time.”

The final, longest scene played out between Weinblatt and actress Jessica Bathurst, and explores more of the main character’s personal backstory, Marino explained. The inaugural performance of the Mari Lwyd was a success, and will certainly be back next year.

This Wednesday, brooklynONE and Dialogue With Three Chords will collaborate at Fort Hamilton Distillery again for their annual performance of “The Krampus,” a musical play named after the Yuletide cryptid that tells the story of a group of friends gathered at a Brooklyn bar on Christmas Eve.

“The moral is like, the family you choose can be a family of choice,” Marino said. “Maybe your immediate family isn’t quite the family you want. There isn’t a giant monster in this play, the Krampus is more of a metaphor for the trauma some of these characters have been through, and how, as a group, every year they come together to deal with this trauma.”

two actors holdings scripts
Anthony DeVito challenged Stephen Weinblatt for the honor of holding the horsehead during the Mari Lwyd – but lost, allowing Weinblatt to walk away with the shroud. Photo by Paul Frangipane

It’s “a beautiful play,” Marino said, with the friends cracking jokes and singing between the serious moments. 

In the New Year, brooklynONE will be in full swing again — they’re planning to do more Shakespeare at Industry City and hope to keep developing their relationship with the complex, which has become like a home to the theater company.

“I think, actually, 2023 is the year where we really get back on track,” Marino said. “We haven’t had a space since 2014, like, a real space we can call home. But Industry City is quickly becoming that.”