In Beertown, all the residents sing and dance, and they love their histories to a fault. It’s that collective obsession with the past that created a town bylaw that says that every five years, Beertonians must assess the merits of 13 precious artifacts stored in a city’s time capsule.
A tip: Arrive early to dog & pony dc’s second run of Beertown, because while the show starts at 7:30 p.m., the community gathering actually begins around 7 p.m. That’s when audience members can share and eat what they brought for the dessert pot luck, grab their free Beertown T-shirts, and make small talk with prominent Beertonians like the mayor and State Rep. Lara Pickel-Cooper, played by Jessica Lefkow (who could probably run for office herself).
The audience participation doesn’t end there. After Mayor Soch, a deadpanningly Colbert-esq Joshua Drew, convenes the 2012 Time Capsule Celebration, the audience/townsfolk must ultimately debate the merits of three items that have been proposed to enter the time capsule. But for every item they add, they must vote out something else. The debate over what’s worth remembering can get so lively that you’ll wonder who’s the actor and who’s the ticket holder.
The cast shines, even as they remain in character during intermission. Director Rachel Grossman does double duty as the Mayor’s son, Michael Soch, Jr., and she’s an adorable highlight, as is the awkward town Ombudsman Edwin McFarlan, (J. Argyl Plath.) Archivist Joann Ryals (Elaine Yuko Qualter), was also very believable as a woman who would never make a mistake.
Dispersed throughout the show are “antecedents” or vignettes of the town’s past. Many of the antecedents are funny, particularly the tale of how the town was founded by Rhys Bramblethorpe and Aloysius P. Thompson who created the B&T Brewery, and a classic song mashup that takes the audience through Beertown’s more recent history.
There are sobering moments too, but often they are fleeting, such as references the loss of sons in the Vietnam War and teenagers killed in a cell-phone related driving accident. And then there’s the constant allusions to economic hardships its residents face, without offering much narrative about how the town has dealt with the closure of the brewery 20 years ago.
Given the current economic stagnation in the United States, how people cope with such struggles is one area where Beertown missed a chance to tell more current, personal stories that could have connected with the audience.
But then, a lot of the experience of Beertown is based on what audience can tease out of the characters. There are many details of the town’s history that aren’t presented unless people ask questions. And the teasing-out goes both ways, especially when Arthur Whiting, (an empathetic Colin Hovde), dons a fedora as the Beertown Bugle’s editor and reporter, interviewing a few audience members about their thoughts on the past and the items most precious to them — but those moments were also brief.
Beertown’s ability to create lively interaction with a smart audience that can be just as funny as the cast may be why it lacked in imparting a sense of sadness at the passage of time and history. The antecedents were entertaining, but there wasn’t enough visceral story to them. The only tale that offered some emotive personal narrative was the presentation by Karine Oppenheim (Wyckham Avery), about why her item should be enshrined in the time capsule. I also found myself wondering: Are there any people of color in Beertown?
Director Grossman cited Sheldon Anderson as one of her inspirations, but the beauty of Winesburg, Ohio, or Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (another story about remembering), is that they provide the audience with that wonderful contradiction of feeling both the joy of community and the ache of loss.
The only takeaway that Beertown offered towards the end of the show was a short unemotional journey of repeating words into the theory of memory — Such as how the act of remembering changes a memory so that it becomes more about you than the past. Show me, don’t tell me.
Beertown performs thru July 22, 2012 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Rehearsal Room, 641 D St NW, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets
Note – Don’t forget the opening act – bring a desert to share around 7pm.