Theater without a theater

Terri Mateer and Lerone Simon in Dutchman.

In a downward spiraling economy, endowments for the arts have been slammed, patrons are largely overwhelmed, and traditional ticket buyers are cutting back on attendance. The result is, of course, a further squeeze on the already hard-pressed dollar. So — okay — when the going gets worse than tough, the uber-tough go guerilla. Whether it’s the International Festival of the Voice utilizing many venues in Phoenicia, including parks, restaurants, and the local train museum for their latest against-the-odds success, or the recent marvelous “living room” VOICEtheater production of Noel Coward’s classic Hay Fever, or simply inviting the audience into the pub for a top-notch reading in Tivoli, survivor’s budgets are utilizing some very new math. Indeed, if the proscenium stage represents the original box recent producers are thinking w-w-w-ay outside it. In fact, some are insisting you don’t need the box at all. That’s right: theater without a theater…

Take, for instance, the remounting of Dutchman by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) at the Kingston Trolley Museum by Stella May Productions. The play takes place in a New York City 1964 subway car. Under the direction of Bruce Grund, the audience — numbering 29 in all — will occupy whatever seats are not filled by cast members in an actual subway car. The stars, Terri Mateer (fresh from Bird-on-a-Cliff’s As You Like It) and Lerone Simon (who established himself in this role last year) push the envelope separating actor and audience with surprising, not always comfortable, results.

Those of us who like front row seats are accustomed to being stared at, spoken to, and (especially in Shakespeare productions) sprayed over with a fine mist emanating from the mouths of the linguistic athletes charging about the stage. In Dutchman, we won’t get spritzed so much as electrocuted by a phantom third rail. A few of us will be eye to eye with the actors — and this is no summer stock production. Instead it’s No Exit from an archetypal inter-racial psycho-drama of a sort which has not mellowed with age despite the fact a married, monogamous gentleman of color presently inhabits the oval office. Dutchman is more like the ghost of Desdemona on a weak dose of acid seeking vengeance on a yuppie Othello.

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The audience will experience a split personality trip.

On the one hand, you’ll feel like an extra on a movie shoot. Because you are, in fact, sitting where an actor should be sitting; and the voyeuristic/theatrical experience inherent to “watching some crazy person” in a real subway car is not that different from being seated in this theater/coach. On the other hand an even creepier experience awaits you. You’ll also be eyeball to eyeball with other members of the audience who have spent time and money to be transported to the 1960’s where feminism, free-love and free-in-name-only black America meet in a head long explosion. But this audience-to-audience relationship has not (to my knowledge) been explored or explained, nor does protocol exist outlining polite do’s and don’ts. The present generation will doubtless be much more comfortable with the breakdown of privacy experienced in this in-yer-face-audience phenomena. Facebookers know well the public-private punchbowl of cyber communication. But as a Facebook refusenik, it’s downright unsettling for me to glance at an audience member knowing I shouldn’t…yet knowing they have likewise glanced at me. Are we radical or rude? Is it belittling or endangering our dramatic experience when we watch other watchers? Or has the wild, wild west of Arts & Entertainment in an ever more out of control world transcended such staid restraint[s]? Is every one and every thing fair game in theater without a theater? ++

 

Dutchman will be performed for a first-come-first-seated audience at the Kingston Trolley Museum (across from the Steel House) 89 East Strand, Kingston, September 23,24,25,30; October 1,2,7,8,9. Tickets are $12 at the door or in advance (which is highly recommended) by calling Stella May Productions at 845-331-7955. Friday and Saturday performances start at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday’s matinee starts at 3 p.m. The play is not suitable for children.

 

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