Monday, May 14, 2012

The Whole A World in About An Hour

Theatre Gigante's OUR OUR TOWN

By Russ Bickerstaff
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There's a ladder in the background and a pile of simple wooden chairs on one edge of the thrust. Mark Anderson is dust mopping the floor of the stage at the Studio 508 Theatre in Kenilworth. The show's about to begin. As brief as it is, the show about to begin covers a good portion of everything in about an hour's worth of more or less uninterrupted stage time. It's actually kind of an interesting accomplishment. 

 

The ensemble is a collection of some rather interesting talent. Theatre Gigante co-founders Isabelle Kralj and Mark Anderson pay homage to Thornton Wilder's classic slice of small town life. They've skewed it in a much more free-wheeling experimental direction which is a largely refreshing change of pace from so much of what makes it to the stage these days. What Kralj and Anderson seem to have pretty accurately worked out is that . . . in the current era, the entire concept of a small town community has been more or less displaced. The aspect of Wilder's play that explores birth, life, struggle and death is captured in kind of a whimsical post-modern presentation. Moments of extreme playfulness can suddenly fall off a cliff of deep and deeply serious intellectualism. This is the high drama that seems like it might turn into a punch and judy show at any moment. And though that never quite happens, the feeling that anything could happen is carried pretty much throughout the entire hour that the show is onstage. . . no small accomplishment there. 

 

Experimental theatre has a reputation of being what some people call pretentious. I think what people are really referring to here is the idea that experimental theatre has a reputation for getting so wrapped-up in the edge and form of what it's trying to say that it loses track of the fact that it's actually sort of there to tell some sort of story. with Our Our Town, Theatre Gigante have managed that preciously rare place where experimental theatre becomes conversational. A conversationally experimental narrative is a novelty that never quite overstays its welcome. it's an hour long. It says what it needs to say and it moves on. In the end, everyone must move on. And the play explores THAT as well. 

 

And thankfully, the show itself isn't going to move on. Our Our Town runs for two consecutive weekends. The first weekend has just passed. The show has three more performances: May 17th, 18th and 19th. There are a couple of new performers who get added to the ensemble next week. And there are a couple that have left as of the end of the first weekend as per prior arrangement. Tom Simpson is on the faculty at Northwestern University in Evanston. There is a quick little cut away that has him delivering a whimsically intellectual little lecture about how identity is desire. It's a clever little bit of spoken word that is over before it begins. Kind of an interesting little diversion from philosophical fare of a considerably less direct nature.  Also on the opening weekend, Marissa Waraksa performed a bit of a Woody-Allen inspired monologue about life and death from the front row of the audience. At one point, it is scripted for her to interrupt the performance and talk about life, death and the meaning of it all. It was cute, but it lacked originality. I guess that could be said about just about any kind of discussion on the matter of life and death, but for some reason Woody Allen always made that kind of thing seem just a bit more interesting. The awkward, neurotic jauntiness of Woody Allen's voice talking about life and death has a kind of appeal to it that evaporates when it's spoken by a beautiful student of . . . sculpture Interior Design, Dance and Music. Maybe the visual impression of grace anne beauty is at odds with the basic nature of existential insecurity. Or maybe the artificial nature of having her act as a confederate in the audience felt a bit too forced. I'd been a part of spoken word performances where that sort of philosophical dialogue was a bit more genuinely spontaneous and here it feels a little too artificial. In any case . . . Malcolm Tulip and Ashley Sprecher take the place of Simpson and Waraksa next week. 

 

The rest of the performance was kind of mixed, with moments of genius mingling with less than inspired moments. Kralj and Anderson manage some really touching moments together as a couple going through various bits of relationship. John Kishline and Your Mother Dances' Elizabeth Johnson have a very compelling conversation about going to a funeral service. Deborah Clifton provides a memorable warmth to the show in a range of different moments. Iain Court's distinctive accent and stage presence have an interesting way of keeping the disparate elements of the show from careening off into various directions. 

 

Everything mixes together. There's no one distinct moment in the show that doesn't bleed into the others. Given that it's covering birth, death and everything in between, it feels as though Theatre Gigante really is putting everything onstage . . . an entire, self-contained reality onstage for roughly one hour's time. And though it's not always brilliant, the novelty of that is on of the best things to get staged all season.

 

Theatre Gigante's Our Our Town  runs through May 19th at UWM Kenilworth Studio 508 Theater. For ticket requests call the UWM Box office at 414-229-4308.

 

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