Given the season, it's tempting to call Politheatrics 2012 the theatrical version of a farmers market.
Burning Coal Theatre's artistic director Jerome Davis has welcomed six companies to pitch their proverbial tents and vend their various wares in the Murphey School space through the end of this week, tempting local audiences with a compelling mixture of tastes, textures and colors. With two different companies performing each evening and various groupings on weekend afternoons, the striking contrasts are only heightened by their proximity—another trait in common with our open-air markets.
Two themes would seem to unite local companies Urban Garden and Haymaker with visiting troupes Machine Theatre and Awkward Elephant—up to a point, at any rate: All claim in their works the techniques of a form called devised theater; all were asked to bring a production in some way dealing with politics. (Performances by guests force/collision and Neutral Ground Ensemble, both presenting shows this weekend, were unavailable for review at press time.)
But over the festival's opening weekend, a broad range of approaches, strategies and subject matters dispelled any concerns over the possibility of artistic monotone. Tight original scripting characterized two shows, while a stage adaptation straight out of chamber theater, incorporating live music, choreography and tableau, made for a third. The fourth production was a deliberately shattered—if sometimes haphazard—collage of drinking games, cheesy pop songs and disjunctive scenes and solo narratives.
Their topics? Interpersonal censorship, Joan of Arc, the federal budget and the decline of the West—not necessarily in that order.
To say the least, you won't be bored. For starters, you won't have time, since another rubric from the farmers market applies here as well: The first fruits are rarely the largest.
Given the logistics required to mount a multi-company theater festival—and this is Burning Coal's first attempt at one—I am hesitant to criticize the length of these one-acts, most of which stayed well within an hour on stage. But Haymaker's What's That Cost and Awkward Elephant's Blackout in particular had the sense of subjects just opened by the time each closed.
Haymaker is establishing an intriguing track record for exploring risky, diverse takes on obscure subject matter in their performances. It's harder to get much more obscure than the federal budget. But in just over a half-hour, timed to the second, performers Akiva Fox and Dan VanHoozer (and Emily Hill, their off-stage collaborator) place all their eggs in one narrative basket as two doctors on a tight schedule who nimbly prove, with the geekiest of PowerPoint presentations, that $3.6 trillion actually is the sum of our fears. Outside of the festival, I'd expect so economical a first act to be followed by two or three sequences placing other characters in completely different relationships to the subject. Here's hoping Haymaker ultimately does; they're off to a fine start here.
In Blackout, blue gaffer's tape divides the stage into two triangular zones. In one, characters speak with total, and at times devastating, candor. In the other, the usual forms of censorship (and self-censorship) rule.
So far, so facile. But when characters cross the line, repeatedly, in their attempts to deal with parents, lovers, and even a lover's parent, they frantically attempt to edit and revise their feelings, beliefs and even identities in real time, in each others' presence. In so doing, Blackout compellingly gets at the oscillations we all go through in assessing and disclosing the truth about ourselves to one another.
Urban Garden has already termed its Mark Twain's Joan of Arc an initial pass, prior to further development and a full-length show next season. This development is good news, since what's already here is the most robust of the first week's offerings.
Joan is actually the second regional production last week to combine live music with dramatic text; in the first, M.C. Taylor (Hiss Golden Messenger) accompanied Jeff Whetstone and Mike Wiley in "The Watauga Progressions" at Casbah. If Taylor's vivid, atmospheric lyrics at points seemed disconnected to Whetstone's characters, here the songs of Americana band Bevel Summers remained more plugged into this adapted text.
The brisk adaptation of Mark Twain's non-comedic history carries us episodically through the title character's life. Narration—and the role of Joan—is divided among company members in different scenes; Nicola Bullock's choreography and artistic director PJ Maske's stage imagery sweeps us along with the love affair Twain clearly had with his subject. This production saves its political critique for Joan's inquisition and ultimate martyrdom, which is memorably abetted by actor Ian Finley.
Machine Theatre's Mum's the Word is easily the most provocative of last week's works, and the most naked in its critique of politics. Director Matt Cosper, who won a Best Original Play award from Charlotte alt-weekly Creative Loafing for this script, fractures the internal narratives of Lois, a present-day housewife determined to live life in the '60s; Todd, her gay husband who she keeps zonked on Xanax; and the Solution to All their Problems: an African child soldier Lois has just adopted on their behalf.
Ricocheting between beer games, Top 40 tunes from the late Jurassic and just-between-us confessions, Cosper's absurdist opus has its share of dark laughs. Unfortunately, its 45 minutes doesn't provide enough time to flesh out the flimsy backstories of its three characters, or delve deeply into their present dysfunctions.
Burning Coal is apparently considering future festivals along these lines; surely a "Politheatrics 2012" implies a "Politheatrics 2013." Given the distance some of these guests have traveled—and the strength of their material—I'm thinking we'd like to spend more time with them in the future.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Theater of pain."