Recent Theater (at long last)

There’s been so much.

Depending on how you count, we saw five, six, or seven plays as a result of the Washington Fringe Festival. How can that be?, you say. Easy. We clearly saw five plays. But one of the plays we saw twice (that would make six). And another play which was performed as part of the Festival, we saw a week after the Festival closed, as its run continued (and is continuing) until the middle of the month. That would be seven.

I’m not going to talk about all six different plays. I was disappointed with two of them, but after all, it was Fringe, and I don’t want to tar (or feather) anyone gratuitously. Besides, if there is one thing I have learned, it is that everyone else does not necessarily share my taste. Why that is, I can’t say I understand, but it does seem to be the case. I am also going to make these mentions rather succinct, because I know that none of you (I am assuming that there in fact are some of you) want to spend the next hour reading this post.

I’ll start with “Beertown”, which we saw twice, a home developed play performed by Dog and Pony, DC, an extraordinarily innovative local company made up of a group of dedicated excellent local actors and theater pros. When I explain Beertown to you, you will understand why we returned for another go.

Beertown is a fictional town located in Iowa (they don’t say that Beertown is in Iowa, and leave it to very attentive audience members to figure it out), founded in what had been Indian country by two men who established a brewery there because of the purity of the local water supply. The brewery has long been gone, the town has seen better days, and even the high school is threatened with closure. But Beertown has a large number of devoted residents, and at least one unique tradition – Beertown has a time capsule, which contains thirteen town artifacts, but which is disinterred every five years, when the town’s residents, at a town meeting, have the opportunity to determine whether to replace any of the items in the capsule with any of substitute items being proposed to replace them.

The story line itself is rather complex. You are at the quinquennial meeting devoted to the time capsule. You meet the mayor, three citizens proposing new items for the capsule (including the mayor’s young daughter), the town archivist, a representative of the state, a newspaper reporter, and the meeting’s parliamentarian. You learn the history of the town through the meeting’s ritual, through a number of off-beat (in the best of senses) musical numbers, and through the description of the items in the capsule and those being proposed.

After you had evidenced your intention to attend the meeting, you receive an invitation to bring a dessert for a pot luck dessert reception, something that you (and it seems virtually everyone else) does. You are given an I-was-there T-shirt (your choice of sizes) and a Howdy sticker, so everyone can call you by name.

And then, after the proposed items are presented (and before the current items are voted out, or not), you have an opportunity to participate in a discussion of the merits of the various changes. And, it’s a free and open discussion, as if you were really at a town meeting. And you, and your fellow Beertonians, really get into it. You have firm opinions (based on your own history with the town) and so does everyone else. And it turns out the residents of Beertown are very clever, and very able to put across their feelings at the town meeting.

So now you can see why we went twice. We wanted to see whether the discussions would be as vivid, and whether the conclusions would be the same. And the answer was “yes” and “no”, in that order. Is the traditional Thanksgiving plum pudding, that Katrina distributes so generously to her neighbors, delicious or abhorrent? Depends on what night you come? Was the Lager Tavern a disgrace to the town, or a place for light entertainment? The answer is the same.

This is brilliant theater. And if you don’t think that the audience is equipped for speaking roles, you need to see it. It deserves to be seen again and again. Perhaps it will be.

The second show I want to mention is Mitzi’s Abortion, a roller coaster of a play, that brings up so many issues, in such dramatic and poignant form, that you are drained and appreciative at the end. Written by a Seattle playwright, Elizabeth Heffron, the play focuses on Mitzi’s pregnancy and what becomes a late term abortion. Mitzi, 22 years old and just married, is pregnant; her husband in the army overseas. Everything is going well until an ultrasound exam discovers that her unborn child is lacking major parts of his brain and, if he lives to term and is delivered, is destined to quickly die. What to do? Everyone has an opinion, including of course Mitzi, and most opinions differ from each other. Mitzi’s husband believes the pregnancy should continue, Mitzi’s odd-ball parents do not. Mitzi’s obstetrician believes that “labor should be induced” (he does not use the term “abortion”). Mitzi’s insurance carrier will not pay for pregnancy termination, no matter what it is called. Even St. Thomas Aquinas plays a role in this drama (which bizarrely is billed as a comedy), claiming that the Catholic church has tightened its position over the centuries, and abortion is not a sin (although clearly not good) before “quickening”.

This is not a pleasant play. Some perhaps would not want to see it. But it is an excellent play. And it brings up all of the issues surrounding both the political debates on abortion, but also the personal issues that will tear you apart. And it didn’t hurt that the actress who played Mitzi (Natalie Cutcher) was extraordinary.

OK, the third show, “The Brontes”, a rock musical written by and performed by Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Review, a stalwart of the DC Fringe Festival. The members of this troupe are extremely talented, both dramatically and musically. The music reminded me of The Who’s Tommy (or is it Tommy’s The Who? I never can remember), which I also liked when I saw it years ago, although this type of music is not my usual choice. The three Bronte sisters, and their one brother, lived short, sad lives, but turned out some masterpieces. The plot line of the show follows each of the siblings’ lives, bracketing it (in the case of the women) with pastiches of their major works. The talent, the music and the energy carried the show. The plot line was interesting (maybe if you were fairly expert in the Bronte novels, it would be more appreciated), but combined with the difficulty I had in understanding all of the words due to the general decibel levels, I thought that the story was the least important element of The Brontes and that if they decided to to put the show on in Esperanto, it would be equally enjoyable.

The last show, and I kid you not, is titled “Mein Kampf”, and one of the two main characters is indeed Adolph Hitler. Written by a Hungarian Jew about twenty five years ago, and performed only a few times in the United States, it is a black comedy about Hitler’s early years in Vienna. Hoping to gain entry into a prestigious art school, he is staying at a down and out hostel, where his roommates include two idiosyncratic Jews, with whom he has a love/hate relationship, what some might called a relationship amongst frienemies. Filled with biblical and historical illusions (too many for me to catch even most of them), based on fact, you see an incipient megalomaniac, incipient Jew hater, and you have to cringe when one of the Jewish characters tells Hitler, after he is rejected by the art school: you ought to go into politics.

This is another play somewhat hard to take. But as one of the lines goes (more or less), you have to laugh when you cry.

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