“Beertown” at 59E59 Theaters (Closed Sunday February 16, 2014)

February 3, 2014 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Devised by dog & pony dc
Directed by Rachel Grossman
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“We come here today to question, to debate, to learn, to grow, and, yes, to leave our mark in the record so that future generations may share the privilege of learning who they are by remembering who we are. What would you have us do instead? How else would you have them remember us?” – Leonard Fishman, General Editor, “Beertown Bugle,” February 1, 1974

The current research on memory is not only exhaustive but exciting as well and although this data is not within the purview of this review of dog & pony dc’s “Beertown,” the questions about memory are relevant to this significant theatre piece currently running at 59E59 Theater C. What is memory and is it static or dynamic? What is sacred to a village and who decides that question? What really matters in a community’s history and in the re-collection of that history?

The members of the Beertown community gather every five years to examine the contents of their Time Capsule which contains five Permanent Artifacts and nine Ephemeral Artifacts. “Beertown” is a “real time” celebration of this event with audience members becoming participants in the festivities from opening pot-luck to the final steps in deciding what is taken out of the time capsule and what replaces the voted-out artifact. The actors portray a provocative cross-section of Beertown including its current Mayor Megan Soch (Wyckham Avery), Representative Lawrence Pickel-Cooper (Max Freedman), Archivist Joann Ryals (Elaine Yuko Qualter), Youngest Daughter of Ninkasi MJ Soch (Rachel Grossman), and Ombudsman Edwin McFarlan (J. Argyl Plath).

These remarkable actors stretch their impressive craft across two hours and ten minutes of history-making story telling with embracing grace and infectious style. Each knows his or her character’s back story with detail. During a conversation with Representative Lawrence Pickel-Cooper during the intermission, Max Freedman never flinched when I pressed him to provide details about his newly-purchased home, its prior owner’s name, and his girl friend’s occupation in Washington, DC! He even offered to call over Archivist Joann to confirm the name of the former owner of his new home in Beertown.

An assortment of “Antecedents” provides sometimes valuable exposition; unfortunately, these flashbacks are not of consistent quality and importance and do not always provide sufficient ‘HEAT’: Antecedent #4 (Tug of War) pales in when compared to Antecedent #16 (The Last 5 Years) which is perhaps the most powerful part of “Beertown.” In this remarkably well-crafted staging, a voiceover recounting events of the last five years (2009 through 2013) counterpoints with simultaneous events occurring in the community in pantomime.

“Beertown” is striking evidence of dog & pony dc’s commitment to excellence in theatre. The company clearly does extensive research into the topics they choose to translate to the stage and holds company members to the highest standards in performance and stagecraft. The outstanding ensemble cast, generously directed by Rachel Grossman, all gave authentic performances and engaged the audience in an important and honest dialog about re-membering. Their work presented the audience with a reminder and a challenge.

As humankind reweaves memories – celebrating its past and hoping to secure its future – what does that unfolding and re-emerging community preserve and what does it eradicate from its “time capsule?” Further, will humankind (and the nations inhabited by humankind) learn to “debate, to learn, to grow?” It would have been good to learn in “Beertown” that the Thakiwaki Nation – as part of the “Trail of Tears – were moved to a reservation west of the Mississippi in 1876, in reaction to the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Custer’s Last Stand. That memory must remain forever in the tapestry of America’s collective memory.