As an experiment in audience participatory theatre, dog & pony dc’s Beertown is an interesting and memorable adventure.
As part of the civic adventure, audience members are encouraged to arrive as early as 7:00 PM and bring desserts for communal sharing. It is a fun opportunity to mingle with the cast members, all of whom stay rigorously in character. Since the mayor does not convene the meeting until around 7:45 pm, however, the event can turn into a prolonged evening given the relatively few points that the show makes.
Beertown takes place during the town’s 20th Quinquennial time capsule celebration. The fictional community meets every five years to celebrate its history and debate whether to change the contents of the time capsule (described as a metal ammunition box, but bearing an appropriate resemblance to a beer keg). Only 13 items are allowed under the rules, so a decision to approve a new item must be balanced by the painful process of selecting an item for removal.
The events of the evening are interrupted by flashbacks to past Quinquennial celebrations, some of which involved skits and musical numbers celebrating the town’s history as the place where its founding fathers found a stream with tasty water perfect for a beer production plant. Unfortunately, Beertown has fallen on hard times since the plant was closed.
You would not know the town was down on its luck from the cheery demeanor of the citizens who show up for the celebration. Joshua Drew captures the folksy charm of town mayor Michael Soch, who is also proud of the participation of his daughter (Rachel Grossman). Other memorable residents include the prim and efficient archivist Joann Ryals (Elaine Yuko Qualter), the outgoing yet carefully noncontroversial Representative Lara Pickel-Cooper (Jessica Lefkow), and down-to-earth ombudsman Edwin McFarlan (J. Argyl Plath), who oversees the event’s voting. The sort you might meet on “A Prairie Home Companion” or in a Christopher Guest mockumentary film.
Although the creators of Beertown have created a small town with a colorful history, not all of the pieces work as well as they could. There are a few too many flashbacks (including one near the end that is discordant and heavy-handed in its message) and other parts of the show such as the town’s hymn and the oath of civic responsibility don’t fully realize their comic potential.
What works much better are the performances of the cast as they interact with the audience. The actors have strong grips on their characters. While some of the audience interviews are a little forced, the responses to audience questions during the debate process on the time capsule contents demonstrate thought and preparation, as well as nimble improvisational skills.
The overall production effectively captures the feeling and protocol of a small-town civic event. If you have attended such meetings, you’ll recall that they often run too long, that certain speakers have their own agendas and tend to dominate the proceedings, that mundane points are made, and that the holder of the gavel is not always able to keep affairs moving smoothly. In these respects, Beertown is realistic to the detriment of the event’s enjoyment.
The production does explore how we choose to shape and preserve our collective history. By showing what memories and artifacts the town holds dear, it demonstrates the town’s history and values and how they bind the community together. The outstanding props/artifacts (uncredited in the post-performance program) are worth examining during the intermission just before the voting process.
If you wish to celebrate small town America by participating in a fictional event and deliberations, you’ll want to snap up tickets to Beertown. However, if you shun political debates, C-SPAN, and condominium association meetings, the dog and pony dc production may have less appeal.
Kudos to the group for devising a novel theatrical event that celebrates community and civility in contested deliberations as we prepare for the coming year of political struggles.
Beertown runs thru Dec 10, 2011 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St SE, Washington, DC.
Devised and presented by dog & pony dc
Directed by Rachel Grossman
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (one intermission)