Theater Review: ‘Beertown’

Come stay for a spell
February 6, 2014 Updated: February 5, 2014

NEW YORK—If you have the opportunity to check out Beertown at 59E59 Theaters before it closes, by all means Please Go! The show by dog & pony dc calls to mind both small-town America and the democratic process at its finest. It’s also one of the best examples of immersive theater to come along in years.

The story takes place in a school auditorium, site of the Beertown 20th Quinquennial Time Capsule Celebration. This is an event held every five years during which the official Beertown Time Capsule is opened, and those townspeople in attendance—and this includes the audience—discuss and debate which of the objects inside shall be removed and which, if any, new artifacts will be added to the collection.

The idea is not only to keep the capsule contents relevant to the history of Beertown, but also to offer the townsfolk a chance to re-examine their own history. This reflection allows them to honor and remember events past, while casting an eye toward how they will be remembered by future generations.

While the various mementos from the capsule are examined and displayed, and the town meeting style of the ceremony continues, the show also offers antecedents of Beertown’s history and inhabitants, some told with music.

These incidents include the founding of Beertown, how the place got its name (yes, it has to do with the brewing of beer), and the circumstances behind the unearthing of the time capsule every five years. Highs and lows are depicted, such as the winning of a blue ribbon at the State Fair, the closing of the Beertown plant, and the loss of the last non-chain grocery store in town, along with mentions of weddings, deaths, and so on.

Running throughout the work is the subject of memory and how people’s and society’s perspectives can change over the years. As one of the stories presented makes clear, memory is not so much a recollection of past events, but rather “a reweaving” of those incidents, ones which usually become slightly different each time one recalls them.

All of these elements come together so perfectly that we can’t help but feel as if we are actually in Beertown and a part of the Beertown community. The setting and stories told call to mind a strong community and perhaps a simpler time than today.

Most important of all is the fact that none of the characters presented feels in any way stereotypical, but rather completely real—be it someone who has trouble positioning the microphone so there’s no feedback when he speaks, or a woman who continues her generations-old family tradition of making plum pudding.
 
Some of the most realistic moments occur when characters are speaking on stage while other actors make quiet remarks or asides as they sit in the audience. Indeed, it’s often hard to distinguish just who are the actors and who are the audience members.

The audience’s comments and questions dictate the way the plots unfold. As such, the actors must be able to think and react quickly to what is being said in order to keep things moving smoothly, as well as to maintain the very effective illusion of reality the show has created.

Direction by Rachel Grossman is letter perfect, skillfully blending the various aspects of the production and allowing them to work in perfect unison. The set by Colin K. Bills offers just the right combination of nostalgia and community atmosphere. Costumes by Ivania Stack are nicely realistic without being exaggerated, and the lighting by Bills is very effective when transitioning the story from town meeting to the various tales being told.

Performances by the actors are excellent throughout; members of the entire ensemble (Wyckham Avery, Rachel Grossman, Max Freedman, Elaine Yuko Qualter, J. Argyl Plath, Colin Hovde, Jon Reynolds, and Yasmin Tuazon) nicely play off both each other and those in the audience.

Offering more than a bit of wistfulness while sounding a cautionary note about the importance of keeping the past just as relevant as what may be coming up around the next bend, “Beertown” allows the audience to visit a place they’ve never been but will grow to feel they’ve known all their lives.

Attendees are asked to bring something to share at the potluck dessert, though doing so is strictly voluntary.

Beertown
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or visit ticketcentral.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Closes: Feb. 16

Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.

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