I’ll be honest.
I was dreading having to go see and review Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s current production of Thornton Wilder’s classic, Our Town, the eternally beloved play about life, romance and death in a small New Hampshire town circa 1905. It’s a work that’s ingrained in the fabric of American theater and education. It’s taught, read, and performed in high schools and colleges all across the country. If you ask any friends with theatrical leanings, probably nine out of ten of them have been IN a production of Our Town (author raises hand: I was the Undertaker my freshman year of high school). It’s also a play frequently produced by both community and regional theaters…not only because it’s a beloved work but it’s easy to stage due to the fact the text explicitly calls for very minimal scenery and props. It’s not very arguably, THE Great American Play which also means it’s a bit familiar and that usually leads to some contempt and scorn. “Oh…THAT play. WHY would you want to see that old thing?” The stature of Our Town is also hurt a bit by the fact that most productions aren’t very good, tending to wallow too much in the bathos and all-American wholesomeness of the work…despite the fact that Our Town is actually one of the bleakest shows you’ll ever see with its fundamental theme of the inevitability of death and it’s rather dour view of the afterlife as one long Waiting Room. (It also doesn’t help that the role of the Stage Manager, who narrates the play, is usually played by a hammy older actor who frequently overplays the “homespun” nature of the role.)
Strawshop’s production, (and the first show in their brand spanking new space at the 12th Avenue Arts complex which they share with New Century Theatre Company and Washington Ensemble Theatre) quickly dispels any misgivings you might have about the material. Greg Carter’s freshly innovative take on the work and his cleverly choreographed direction breathe new life into the play, aided by his terrific design team. Perhaps reflecting on the newness and newly completed construction of their new theater space, the setting for this Our Town IS a construction zone of ladders, wood scraps, paint cans and bare bones lighting as splendidly designed by Matthew Smucker (Set) and Reed Nakayama (Lights). The actors are all in modern dress, many of them wearing work smocks and aprons and you can still smell all those new construction smells. It’s a smart and ideal way to use that newness to inject fresh energy into the piece.
Mr. Carter’s astute direction is aided by a strong cast that includes established local actors and some charming young new faces including the young couple at the center of the story, the teenagers George Gibbs and Emily Webb who are strongly portrayed by Joe Cummings and Anastasia Higham. Both actors are terrific at conveying the naivete of their youthful characters but never stray into being coyly mawkish. That’s particularly a danger in the role of Emily; frequently actresses can get a bit too teary and emotional with the role that demands a lot from an actress as the character has to journey from callow youth to newly deceased young matron in the span of three acts, but Ms Higham doesn’t let the emotion overwhelm her. Her Emily is passionate but very self-aware.
The cast in total is very strong but always, at the heart of Our Town, there is the Stage Manager who grounds the material and as stated above, a role that can be interpreted ham handedly by the majority of the men who usually portray the character. Fortunately, Mr. Carter went against the grain and cast a woman in the part and frankly, we can’t think of anyone better suited than Amy Thone who gives a lovely naturalistic and conversational performance. Her Stage Manager is very matter of fact but never judgmental or preachy; there’s a “just the facts” quality to the role that many men tend to resist but one that Ms Thone embraces. She’s not influencing this story; that’s not her role. The Stage Manager isn’t in charge of the proceedings… the role of a stage manager is to “follow the book”, ie the script and perform the duties outlined by the Script and the Director. It’s the correct way to play the role and thankfully, one without resorting to the “Grampa Wryly Pulling on his Lapels and Chuckling Avuncularly” interpretation of others. It’s a superb performance by one of the city’s most gifted actors.
Actually, there’s not much to chuckle about in the harshly realistic charms of Thornton Wilder’s beautiful play about the inevitability of Life and Death. But, there is much to rejoice about in the beautifully staged, designed and performed production of the work. You should see it for yourselves to remind yourselves what an important work Our Town truly is…when performed as successfully as this excellent production.
Meanwhile, across the gorgeous foyer of the 12 Avenue Arts space, in the smaller theater, there’s another new production debuting, this one is named Sprawl and it comes to us via those kooky kids over at Washington Ensemble Theatre. Sprawl is a new work by a playwright with a local connection, Joshua Conkel, who also wrote another WET show a couple year’s back, the gay themed Milk, Milk Lemonade that featured Troy “Carlotta Sue Phillpot” Mink as a Granny as well as a stand up comedian chicken. I didn’t care much for that play and to be frank, I really despise this newer work from Mr. Conkel, so I think it wise for WET to move on to discovering some new, fresh plays that aren’t jumbled messes of ripped off schtick from better works and poor imitations of better written material. (I’ll continue my frankness; WET has been picking a lot of lousy material in the last couple of years…IMO.)
Sprawl just doesn’t make much sense. It’s about a new subdivision built out on the edges of a big city but no one wants to buy out there, so two desperate female real estate agents bring their monthly book club group out to the show house in hopes of generating some buzz about the new development. They’ve even managed to lure the Mayor’s wife, the local town’s bitchy Queen Bee to attend as well as the area’s only gay couple who are trying to have a baby.
But, things soon go wrong as earthquakes ravage the area and certain creepy Lovecraftian plot devices start to emerge from the ground and eventually all hell breaks loose as the disparate characters all battle to survive in the wilds of the subdivision. It eventually boils down to, “Who Will Live?” and “Who Will Die?” and comes complete with lots of bad Sci Fi plotting and an excessive amount of vomiting and dumb violence.
It’s all messily misdirected by WET’s co-artistic director Ali Mohammed el-Gasseir and while this production does have a funny moment or two, largely due to its talented cast led by Marc “Waxie Moon” Kenison as the Mayor’s Wife, it doesn’t justify the headache induced by this loudly incoherent play. (Things to enjoy about Sprawl: Mr. Kenison playing a bitch, instead of the sweet Waxie Moon character; Laura Hanson’s pushy, coke addicted realtor and Samie Spring Detzer’s spaced out very pregnant realtor; a clever set design by Pete Rush and Christopher Mumaw; evocative but LOUD sound design by James Schreck).
WET has been off-kilter for the last couple of years. Here’s hoping to stronger work in the future.
The “Ugly” part of this post’s header sadly refers to Annex Theatre’s Zapoi!, a new play by local actor Quinn Armstrong. Zapoi! has a clever premise; it’s set in a small Russian town where all of Russian/Soviet history is happening at the same time with characters from centuries apart from each other interacting. But, the plot quickly collapses over too many contrivances and an insistence on staging obnoxiously violent scenes for no apparent reason other than it appeals to the actor/playwright. In fact, all of Zapoi! feels like a young actor’s “Wish List” of “Cool, Crazy Things I’d Love to Do On Stage!” a problem that occurs frequently with new work from young playwrights who come from an acting background. The play is never sure if it’s a comedy, or serious drama and this annoying variance in tone that lurches from scene to scene (actually, within some scenes) is annoying and strident. This show was so repellent to me, that I had to restrain myself from leaving in the middle of the second act.
It’s also a huge waste of talented people. There are some very good actors in Zapoi! who just seem confused as to why they’re there (Frank Lawlor and James Weidman) and other actors who might actually be talented but the poor script and lack of direction have led them to overact at such an obnoxious level, it’s impossible to tell if they can be salvaged for better work in better shows…
I have a huge love for Annex, (who had a terrific year last year with several strong shows like Chaos Theory, Balconies, and Blood Countess) but Zapoi! isn’t a crowning achievement in their long history. Here’s hoping to stronger shows for the rest of the year.