Picnic Theatre chooses fun over highbrow
By Jess Righthand
Friday, October 26, 2012
Each time a show breaks for intermission, theater-goers face a familiar predicament: Is it worth elbowing to the front of the concessions line to purchase an overpriced beer or glass of wine only to guzzle or shuck it before the second act? A meager 20 minutes is all most shows allow for drink and small talk, to say nothing of waiting in line for the restroom.
If you should want to have your drink and see theater too, Picnic Theatre Company is one of the only games in town. The troupe puts on shortened, hour-long versions of classic plays in a cocktail party setting. Audiences have ample opportunity to imbibe, mingle and enjoy the show.
“It’s more interactive, it’s more engaging, it’s less highbrow but still has a good cultural value to it,” says Karim C. Chrobog, a documentary filmmaker who is directing the company’s upcoming performance of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” at Dumbarton House.
Picnic Theatre was primarily the brainchild of principal actor Oli Robinson and his friend Bruce MacPhail. Robinson missed the impromptu outdoor Shakespeare plays he used to perform in while studying at Cambridge University in the U.K.
“You do plays predominantly outside in the summer, and there’s alcohol involved, and everyone has a little picnic and gets a little drunk while watching the play,” says Robinson of his native Britain. “People enjoy doing that, it turns out.”
Using the National Gallery of Art’s Jazz in the Garden as a model, he set out to re-create what he calls “party theater” in Washington. In 2010, he founded Picnic Theatre Company along with MacPhail, Chrobog, Christina Sevilla and Omar Popal, the restaurateur behind Napoleon in Adams Morgan and Cafe Bonaparte (in addition to acting in Picnic Theatre’s shows, Popal also supplies crepes for purchase at the shows).
Since then, the troupe has put on five sold-out productions, including works by Moliere, Anton Chekhov and Edgar Allan Poe. Shows take place in historic venues throughout the District, moving indoors for a cocktail party when it gets too chilly for the troupe’s eponymous picnics. Sevilla says the shows draw a diverse mix of people as interested in the theater portion of the show as they are in getting to know one another. This play in particular, with its political corruption and intrigue, is likely to spark plenty of spirited conversation.
The troupe’s actors have a wide range of experience, and all have day jobs. Robinson, a neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health, is the most seasoned of the bunch, having done a stint in Footlights, the famed Cambridge drama club. In contrast, Sevilla says her only acting experience before founding Picnic Theatre Company was her turn as Rizzo in a high school production of “Grease.” The group also welcomes new members: Several former audience members have performed in subsequent productions.
Sets are simple, and each actor is responsible for his or her own costume, a policy that has yielded bellies overstuffed with pillows, outlandish wigs and plenty of laughs from the other actors as well as audiences. It falls right in line with the group’s overall goal of simply allowing everyone to have a good time.
“The one thing that resonates is people see we’re having so much fun while we’re doing it,” says Chrobog. “We’re not trying to compete with Washington theater, we’re just trying to offer something different.”