Dog and Pony DC’s ‘Beertown’: A fun place to visit

November 14, 2011

Think you’re too sophisticated to play along with an interactive theater company?

Well, think again. The clever folks at Dog & Pony DC have collectively devised a theater piece about a small, fictional Midwestern town, and it requires much audience interaction. The result is so gently satiric and utterly involving that you’ll find yourself voting for and against issues before you even realize you’ve raised your hand.

The evening begins before the show officially starts, as company members, in character, converse with ticket holders as they enter the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop and send them to the dessert potluck table at the rear of the small theater space.

Beertown’s mayor, Michael Soch (Joshua Drew), a pleasant, nattily dressed fellow, calls the meeting to order. The event is the 20th quinquennial ceremony — that’s every five years — in which the town’s time capsule, first interred in 1891, is reopened, its artifacts carefully displayed and votes taken on what to add or take away from the precious collection.

We learn Beertown was founded by Rhys Bramblethorpe and Richard Thomp­son, who believed its waters ideal for the B&T Brewery they launched. We learn, too, that the men had a falling out and that Thompson attempted to shoot Bramblethorpe, but accidentally killed the chambermaid instead. The gun was previously removed from the time capsule; one of the issues is whether to return it. At various times, the gun was deemed too painful a piece of history or, alternately, an essential fact.

The audience’s participation can change the play’s ending and its length. Discussion takes off over voting for the time capsule artifacts, and audience members, at least at Friday’s show, become central to it. Thanks to subtle cues from the actors, the audience quickly picks up on petty tensions and rivalries between Beertonians.

One debate became a symbol for our economic malaise. The vote hinged on whether to keep the last beer bottle to roll off the now-closed B&T Brewery’s conveyor belt or take out the bottle and replace it with a thick stack of pink slips the workers received the day the brewery closed. Soon there was talk of the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent, and we were off to the races.

“Beertown” works because Dog & Pony DC is careful not to let the show condescend toward small-town America. From Mayor Soch, who’s easily rattled, to his tender, unfortunately named daughter, Michael Soch Jr. (Rachel Grossman, who also directed), to upbeat state assemblywoman Lara Pickel-Cooper (Jessica Lefkow) to astronomer Karin Oppenheim (Wyckham Avery), the cast members bring comic flair and emotional grit to their portrayals.

Little vaudeville skits highlighting Beertown’s history occasionally interrupt the voting. More solemn digressions, called “antecedents,” delve briefly into such concepts as the wispiness of memory and the unreliability of history’s interpreters. And the town’s perky newspaperman, Arthur Whiting (Matthew R. Wilson), interviews audience members here and there.

Not every element in “Beertown” works. Some of the skits fall a tad flat, and the second half felt a bit long. But the power of the actors and their vividly imagined Beertonians make the imaginary burg seem a most excellent destination.

You can visit Beertown at www.visitbeertown.com, on Facebook and other social media sites. Dog & Pony DC encourages theatergoers to bring a nut-free dessert to add to the pre-show dessert potluck.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

Beertown

was devised by Dog & Pony DC. Directed by Rachel Grossman. Set and lighting, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Ivania Stack; musical arrangements and lyrics, Wyckham Avery, Mitch Mattson, Kate Langsdorf, J. Argyl Plath and Jon Reynolds; dramaturg, Jess Holman. With Elaine Yuko Qualter, Jon Reynolds, J. Argyl Plath and Lorraine Resseger-Slone. About two hours. Through Dec. 10 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. Visit dogandponydc.com.

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