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Theater Review: “Beertown” at the Capital Fringe Festival

In dog and pony dc’s enjoyable homage to small-town America, the audience shapes the show.

Joshua Drew in Beertown. Photograph by C. Stanley Photography.

When identifying oneself as an American, the act of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance—hand over heart, in a room crowded with fellow countrymen and women—is right up there with baseball and apple pie. It’s a display of patriotism, tradition, and unity.

But it’s hardly the only ritual that binds us. Milling around the refreshment table before a public meeting, peeling back tinfoiled trays of homemade brownies and exchanging pleasantries with neighbors; nodding in sympathetic encouragement as a nervous teen trips through her first public presentation; confirming that those seated on either side of you are standing to sing the official town song with a nonchalant glance before rising yourself—these are among the most familiar of motions to go through as a community and a subtle but solid piece of what makes us who we are. And they’re all a part of Beertown, now playing in Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s Rehearsal Hall. The other pieces, as it turns out, are pretty much up to us. Or at least they are in dog & pony dc’s refreshing theatrical experience, returning to DC for a limited Capital Fringe Festival engagement after last year’s Helen Hayes-nominated debut run.

Should we honor our collective memory with the rusty film projector from the shuttered local movie house or the antique gun used in a duel between our town’s founding families? That’s the kind of question the interactive show wants the audience to weigh in on in a performance format that’s part Choose Your Own Adventure, part kooky murder-mystery dinner party—only complex and thought-provoking. The inventive company incorporates their signature “audience integration” tactics before you even get to the theater. Attendees are asked via e-mail to bring a dessert to share to kick off the 20th Quinquennial Beertown Time Capsule Celebration that makes up the performance. And when you’ve enjoyed an oatmeal cookie while chatting with the mayor about his daughter’s first Time Capsule Day presentation, there’s an immediate connection. So by the time the proceedings get underway and the residents of Beertown, an anonymous Anytown, USA, have gathered for their official tradition of unearthing the town time capsule every five years and voting on which artifacts to keep and which to remove, you’re already invested. The faux Town Hall meeting remains just cheeky enough to avoid being corny, and thanks to a committed cast of relatable characters, you’ll feel right at home as an honorary Beertonian for the evening.

As Michael Soch, the proud mayor of Beertown presiding over the pomp and circumstance of the time capsule ceremony, Joshua Drew has mastered the not-quite-genuine grin of a local politician and volleys back and forth with cast and audience members alike with sickening charm. Rachel Grossman (founding member of dog & pony dc and the show’s director) seems an unlikely choice to play his teenage daughter at first, but her self-conscious mannerisms and mortified eye rolls are just right. Scattered throughout the intimate space, average Beertonians like Karin Oppenheim (fellow dog & pony founding member Wyckham Avery) offer performances engaging enough to sway votes, and ombudsman Edwin McFarlan (a hilariously deadpan J. Argyl Plath) steals a few scenes with his straight-faced improvisations.

Skating on its novel structure and endearing attention to detail in the first act, the performance really gets to the fun stuff after adjourning for intermission. The floor is opened to both audience members and actors to debate and vote on the artifacts that best represent Beertown’s collective history for five years to come. It’s a simple task, echoing the type of meaningful civic discourse that takes place in city halls and rec centers across the country every day, and yet, interspersed with dramatic vignettes, it’s also able to slyly raise important questions about the human tendency to rewrite history, worship tradition, and long for the good old days that probably weren’t as idyllic as you remember them. At times, the exercise feels almost too much like a stuffy town hall gathering: Beertonians actual and honorary hogging the floor to hear themselves talk, wading through a thick swamp of overblown bureaucracy to get answers, abiding by strict and sometimes strange procedures set forth by earlier generations without question. The balance seems askew in a few scenes that drag on, but for the most part the authenticity pays off.

In a time and political climate in which discourse has spiraled far beyond civil, participating in a passionate, community-centric discussion of who we are and who we want to be, imaginary or not, is surprisingly comforting. Not to mention entertaining.

Beertown is at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company as part of the 2012 Capital Fringe Festival through July 22. The show will also be performanced at Round House Theatre Silver Spring July 28. Running time is about two hours and ten minutes (it varies with each show). Tickets ($15 to $32) are available via the company’s website.

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