It was with a certain amount of existential dread of community meetings that I went into Beertown, an interactive theater piece by the troupe dog & pony dc now playing 59E59 Theaters. Beertown, you see, is structured around a town's municipal meeting during which the mayor and citizens of the (fake) eponymous town discuss the contents of the neighborhood time capsule. Boy, were my trepidations unfounded. Beertown is an invigorating piece that ingeniously constructs and deconstructs the most important tenets of theater itself: community and ritual.
In this case, the ritual is Beertown's 20th Quinquennial Time Capsule Celebration (the town is named in honor of its brewer-founders) and we, the audience, are lucky enough to have been invited to take part, having just moved into the community in time for the 2014 edition. As with every exhumation of a time capsule, the meeting of the townspeople will see new artifacts voted in and others voted out. The evening includes a pre-conference dessert potluck (audiences are encouraged to bring goodies), the Pledge of Allegiance, proposal of new items, spirited debate, and voting. The lines are blurred before you even get up to the third-floor playing space — cast members, already in character, come down to 59E59's E-Bar to welcome guests and distribute leaflets.
Bear in mind that this is a piece where you need to play along. We are not asked to interact with the performers, but it is human nature to speak when spoken to. Nametags are required of everyone. Conversations begin around the buffet. I improvised my story of why I was there as I went along, and the other actors took the ball further. After Mayor Megan Soch (played by Wyckham Avery) personally introduced herself to me, I thanked her for allowing me to attend after only having lived in Beertown for a few days. And then I chatted with town archivist, Joann Ryals (Elaine Yuko Qualter), about the artifacts.
The other audience members did the same, and when it came time for the debate about which items should be placed in the time capsule (ranging from a ring belonging to a Hell's Angels-like biker gang, to a meteorite that landed in the town), they got so into it that the lines were blurred even further. People had such strong opinions — they, too, made up their own moments of town history that the actors incorporated — it was like they had been part of the show's devising.
The main reason why Beertown works so well (besides the fact that it's fun in the choose-your-own-adventure-novel sense) is the unexpected emotional punch it carries. Remembrance and memory play a major part in the piece, which is directed by cast member Rachel Grossman (Shannon Davies Mancus serves as the touring codirector). What the work hammers home, through antecedents about the town's founding and other critical events, is that every time you remember something, that memory changes just slightly. Beertown might be a land akin to Glocca Morra and Springfield, but after visiting for a few hours, it felt like I'd lived there my entire life.
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