‘Beertown’: A nice place to raise your theatergoers
By Peter Marks,
Plying you with lemonade and a chance to exercise your God-given right to stand up and be counted, the civic-minded guardians of “Beertown” draw you cannily into their appealing experiment in democratic drama. A municipal meeting in a small Midwestern city is the proceeding through which Dog & Pony DC tries to get an audience to behave as members of a proud, hard-pressed community — and to a surprising degree, it succeeds.
Anyone who has ever attended a session of a school board or planning board or town council will recognize the characters populating the Dog and Pony show, running in Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s rehearsal space as part of the Capital Fringe Festival: the clean-cut mayor (Joshua Drew); the anal-retentive archivist (Elaine Yuko Qualter); the solicitous state representative (Jessica Lefkow); the stoic clerk (J. Argyl Plath). They are custodians of Beertown’s hallowed customs, and their assignments are to instill a respect for the made-up town’s traditions, even as the company has a bit of fun with them.
You will, too. Although you might wish that any of the eight actors in this partly improvised evening might turn up the volume just a tad on the personalities of the locals they’re embodying, there seems to be a method in not making “Beertown” the kind of mocking lampoon of small-town politics portrayed on “Parks and Recreation.” The idea, it seems, is to keep it real enough so that audience members will buy ever more deeply into the unfolding events — and feel a stake at the end, when we’re asked to vote our Beertonian hearts and minds.
So please, fill out a name tag and find a seat! Admittedly, the sole question on the agenda would not fire up the likes of Brian Williams (or even Aaron Sorkin): What items of Beertown memorabilia should be added to the city’s time capsule? The city, whose claim to fame is the brewery that was its main source of employment until it closed in 1992, has little left to hold it together apart from this ritual. A local statute requires the town fathers to disentomb the capsule every five years and poll the assembled citizenry on the container’s “Ephemeral Artifacts”: the nine items that are subject to voters’ whims.
This endearing rite — the time capsule, built by set and lighting designer Colin K. Bills, wittily resembles an aluminum beer keg — provides the Dog and Pony actors a platform to delve into Beertown’s history in intermittent song and skits and to tease out the state of mind of audience members. On each night as the evening unfolds, actors playing townsfolk step up to the lectern and propose items that would supplant some of the existing capsule artifacts. In a general and seemingly melancholy way, the capsule items up for vote suggest a darkening mood in Beertown, for they do not reflect a nostalgia for the past as much as a disaffection with the present.
The fair-haired Drew, in the guise of upbeat Mayor Michael Soch (pronounced “sock”), guides the meeting as firmly as he holds the gavel. Soch’s the affable hub of “Beertown,” although the tidbits of his biography that emerge hint at funny and sort of weird details. He’s brought along his daughter, the bizarrely named Michael J. Soch Jr., and played so retiringly by director Rachel Grossman that you might guess she’s locked in her room for long stretches of the year.
If there are secrets to be unraveled, however, the audience is on its own. Actors mingle with us at intermission, at which time we’re free to ask them questions, and a good portion of the second act of the two-hour show — it flies by quickly — is consumed by an audience debate of the proposed new contents of the capsule. This is the point at which the power in “Beertown” shifts to the “community.” The give-and-take is a highlight of the evening, especially when spectators activate their imaginations and send the narrative in directions that are whimsical but rooted in the reality the actors have set down.
Shyness is not a rampant condition in Beertown. One of the pleasures of the piece is the urge it triggers in you to want to speak up, to add some tiny piece to the rhetorical puzzle your fellow Beertonians are creating. Smartly, Drew does not let the arguments drag on: Emboldened by the 70-odd pairs of eyes and ears around them, some people can become rather passionate about a time capsule very quickly.
The remaining cast members —Wyckham Avery, Jon Reynolds and Colin Hovde — sit among us as residents and reporters, and if you sit close enough to one of them, they might whisper a juicy smidgen of gossip that adds to your grasp of insular Beertown intrigue. Everyone in the cast is excellent, portraying the keepers of Beertown’s fading flames.
Occasionally, through sketches that feel like teaching games, “Beertown” becomes a tad too pushy in its efforts to get us to reflect on the evening’s meanings. These moments, though, are far outweighed by the instances of sly intelligence. In fact, “Beertown” would be welcome back in these parts long before the next scheduled raising of the capsule.
by Dog and Pony DC. Directed by Rachel Grossman. Set and lighting, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Ivania Stack; graphic artist, Kate Ahern Loveric. About two hours. Through July 22 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW, 202-393-3939; an additional show is scheduled for July 28 at Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring, 240-644-1100.