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Venue: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
July 13th 7:30 PM; July 15th 7:30 PM; July 17th – July 22nd 7:30 PM
They Say: “Which tells the story of our town’s history better: A pair of glasses? license plate? bottle of beer? Visit a place where remembering is a communal act and everyone’s opinion is heard and counted.”
Audience participation is the keystone of the theatrical experiment that is Beertown. If you associate the phrase “audience participation” with irksome, half-baked attempts to banter with the unfortunates seated in the front row, reconsider. The dog & pony dc ensemble is playing on a higher level, and taking part in this “devised” piece is a lot of fun.
A remount of the November 2011 production that earned the company a Helen Hayes nod for Outstanding New Play or Musical, the show features some casting changes but the premise remain the same. The audience is asked to help compose Beertown’s 20th Quinquennial Time Capsule Celebration. Every five years the community opens the town’s time capsule to debate which thirteen objects best embody their history and values. Three townspeople propose new artifacts for inclusion in the capsule. The catch is that if the Beertonians (the audience) vote a new one in, another must come out.
The conversation raises timely concerns. Beertown, once a flourishing brewing community, is a fictional stand-in for countless towns across America that are facing economic hardship. The town has struggled ever since the brewery was shut down. One proposed artifact is a section of the bar from a beloved, but now closed, local watering hole. Another is a stack of pink slips handed to a town worth of laid-off citizens.
I came to Beertown predisposed to sympathize with the given circumstances. I spent half my childhood in Wheat Ridge, CO, the small town adjacent to Golden, home of the Golden Brewery and what is now MillerCoors. But you certainly don’t need to hail from an actual beer town to glean insight into small town America. You’d have to be one stern stick in the mud to resist dog & pony dc’s technique for engaging an audience.
You aren’t asked to speak individually right out of the gate. A dessert potluck is in progress as the audience files in. Tasty contributions are welcome and the excellent cast uses this time to converse with you in character. If you do come from a small town you’ll be faced with many familiar personalities. As with so many civic events, the Quinquennial opens with the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s clever- an authentic way to assign the audience lines they already have memorized. (Will Fringegoers who aren’t U.S. citizens hesitate to participate here, even in a theatrical context? I’m curious.) By the second act, when the debate begins, the ice has been thoroughly broken. This being DC, your fellow audience members know how to construct an argument, so plan to bring your A-game.
That said, there are a few kinks in the gears of the play. Punctuating the presentation of artifacts are choreographed flashbacks of Beertonian history. Most of these work, save one disruptive scene towards the end. The interlude introduces the notion that the act of remembering is an inherently imaginative process, which alters the history it seeks to preserve. It’s not the thesis I question. (I found myself heading down memory lane, trying to recall that distinct Golden, CO odor: Coors. The whole town smelled like Coors.) I just wish the ensemble had been able to integrate the scene as seamlessly as they did all the audience contributions.
Of course, much of the show requires the ensemble to improvise, and some heavy lifting falls on Colin Hovde, as a reporter tasked with interviewing the audience. Interviewees seemed to prefer debating in abstract terms to being singled out to disclose personal details, and fair enough. These bits did make for the evening’s few strained moments, but I’m glad the devisers pushed the envelope.
These hiccups aside, the show works because it creates an innovative way to experience what’s at the core of live theater: being in the same room with actors and your fellow audience members. The arguments change with every performance, but when audiences willingly become actors, and start taking on characters they imagine would be celebrating Beertown’s Quinquennial, you know that dog & pony dc has won the game. Our town hall had everyone from the guy who tries to change the bylaws mid-process to the misguided youths who want to taste the beer inside the defunct brewery’s final bottle. One gentleman even decided to play the person on whom the substance of a debate over dismissal slips is lost, they just need a little attention. He raised his hand simply to declare that he likes the color pink.
See It If: Crave insight into small town America, miss a small town in America, or just can’t pass up a chance to pick a fight.
Skip It If: Speaking in public makes your blood run cold, or you’re looking to Fringe to help you escape a timely debate.