Monday, August 25, 2008

Dancing at Lughnasa/People's History of the U.S.

Today's connection is location. I had two more firsts this weekend -- my first Oak Park Festival Theatre experience and my first Quest Theatre experience, and both of them were affected heavily by location.

I'm sure Dancing at Lughnasa was a capable production, perhaps not more but certainly not less, and if nothing else, it seemed like Brian Simmons was doing some top-notch work as Michael. I'm speaking in uncertainties because I'm not entirely certain. Unfamiliar with Oak Park Festival's set-up, my less than punctual self showed up at about 7:58 with no blanket or chair in hand. So I sat on the grass immediately behind a larger couple in camping chairs. Granted, that was bound to happen anyway as the entire front row was made of couples, many of them larger, all of them in camping chairs.

I know it's already been said by a million critics for this production, but, really? Lughnasa in that set-up? Any theatre in the park type setting, much less one without any formal seating arrangment, is going to need a sense of broadness to get anything past the first larger couple. Dancing at Lughnasa: not so high on the broad scale. I could see about 2/3rds of the stage from a terrible angle (and among those of us sitting on the ground, I can only imagine that mine was one of the better ones) and heard, y'know, most of it. So it seemed like an all right show. That's about as sure as I can be.

As Ed mentioned in the comments for my Torch Song post, Quest isn't exactly a luxurious outing either, but I do think it added to the atmosphere and charm of the evening. I have the other sort of seating difficulty -- I'm not larger, I'm longer, so the knees usually end up jammed someplace less than ideal. Quest was no exception, but sitting there on cramped hard plastic chairs in a church basement and holding a brown paper bag full of one dollar popcorn put me in the exact right place for The People's History of the United States, with its Jim Henson combination of childlike earnestness and oddball charm that only truly works if it seems low budget, regardless of the reality of the situation.

The whole evening was a blast, which is quite an accomplishment considering how randomly it bounced around stylistically. Most memorable were the intense (and considering the number of youngsters in the crowd, probably nightmare-inducing) Salem witch trials, including Ian Knox's fierce evocation of Jonathan Edwards; the Pete Seeger does Sesame Street rave-up of "All Mixed Up"; the Depression-era "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime" -- which most directly aped the Henson brand of absurd; an marvelous acoustic rendition of Tommy Cash's "Six White Horses" by Ben Powell, who might be the honest man's answer to Seth Rogen (which I absolutely mean as a compliment); and the best piece of the evening, the every which way but didactic "Fifty Million Commies", which starts with Joe McCarthy as a ventriloquist's dummy and ends with a tap dancing chorus girl in a gigantic papier mache Mao Tse-Tung mask.

The show runs out of steam a bit at the end, capsuling the entire 90s into an abstracted Monica Lewinsky joke and, of course, ending the 00's after a year and nine months. But history's a lot harder when you still remember it, and when the cast comes together to end with The Polyphonic Spree's "Light and Day" and a charmingly low-budget amount of audience covering confetti, the People's Company finishes the People's History with and for, not to, the People.

And then we mulled around a church basement with the cast, who felt no need to rush backstage to get out of costume. It was kind of beautiful.


This week for Paul: The Neo-Futurists' Fake Lake on Friday, Eclipse's Plaza Suite on Saturday, and Open Eye's Trust on Sunday. And a lot of relaxation on Labor Day.


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