Denton — One of the common complaints from small theater companies is that there’s a lack of affordable space in town. But some theater folk have come up with a solution: do the play in your house. Or, a house.
This concept is not new, of course; it has been gaining popularity around the country as interest in immersive theater grows. In Dallas we saw this in 2013 when Dead White Zombies staged the original work T.N.B. in a former crack house in West Dallas. In that case, there was some work to be done, as director Thomas Riccio had to have the home updated—and the utilities turned on. The idea of the audience traveling from room to room and outside, and not necessarily in a specific sequence, was creative.
Last summer, a young company brought an original play to the carriage house in the backyard of a lovely home in Oak Cliff’s Winnetka Heights. There’s another local outfit, called House Party Theatre, that’s been doing shows in homes, galleries and nontraditional spaces. And in the world of chamber music, about five local organizations present concerts in private homes with large, acoustically sound rooms.
Currently, you can catch two local productions in private homes. One of them uses the concept well—and has the benefit of a brilliant playwright.
But let’s start with the show that isn’t nearly as successful: Danny O’Connor’s The Down Low, presented by Octaviar Productions and Audacity TheatreLab (here’s our listing, which has times, ticket info and more). Directed by Brian Grunkowski, it happens in a small home (just less than 1,000 square feet) on busy Mockingbird Lane, just west of Skillman Street. (Park on a side street.)
The play is a mess of a dark comedy about a man, Aaron (O’Connor), who asks his friend Simon (Jeff Swearingen) over to help out with a peculiar problem: there’s a dead man in his bedroom. What should they do about it? Others include Grunkowski as the tripped-out Raymond, Jordan Tomenga as roomie Jack, Robin Clayton as Polish model Kassia and Mercedes Arndt as Simon’s high school theater student Cindy.
The dialogue is clumsy and juvenile and the plotting cliché, with Swearingen doing his best with the material and O’Connor and Arndt giving decent-enough performances.
The biggest question mark comes with the staging. If you’re going to do a play in a private home, why not use as much of the space as possible? There are 15 chairs in the living room from where the audience members watch the entire 75 minutes. Most of the action happens in the dining room, which we face. But there’s stuff happening in other rooms, too, and there’s a cute little backyard and deck. It begs for a promenade-style staging.
Plus, the bedroom with the dead guy is the room we know has to be the house’s actual kitchen, so it’s just weird. On a more traditional theater stage, you can get away with the audience using their imagination with setting and locations. Here, in this house, we know were the kitchen is, and it’s not where they say it is. Maybe that’s why we’re not walking through the rooms.
For a much more interesting house play, go to the final weekend of Caryl Churchill’s 2000 play Far Away, which is the final production in the 2014-15 (the seventh) season for Denton’s Sundown Collaborative Theatre.
Sundown has always been a nomadic company, and as a result has used some interesting spaces, including the upstairs room of a pizza joint in downtown Denton. But they have mostly used a dance studio, called the Greenspace Arts Collective, which is not really conducive to theater. Nor is it to theater audiences’ butts, as the seats are those uncomfortable folding chairs.
This show is done in a home in a residential neighborhood, rented by outgoing artistic director and this production’s director Tashina Richardson, who has two roommates (one of them is also a Sundowner).
It’s a slightly larger home than the aforementioned production, but what’s smart about Richardson’s staging is that the play’s three scenes are done in three rooms, with the audience guided by a stagehand to each location. We have to stand the entire time, but the play is only 60 minutes.
And either they really don’t have much furniture, or they’ve stored most of it elsewhere in the home. This production makes minimal use of furniture for the areas through which the actors and audience promenade.
Churchill is one of the world’s great living playwrights, best known for her much-studied 1979 masterpiece Cloud Nine. Sadly, we don’t see her work enough around here; Echo Theatre did a terrific Cloud Nine more than a decade ago, WingSpan Theatre Company has done Seagulls and Undermain Theatre did A Number. (Top Girls and The Shriker have had college productions.)
This is the second North Texas production of Far Away [see note at bottom of this review] which in three scenes speaks elliptically but succinctly of a people afraid of their government; there are imprisonments and odd things happening with, and by, animals.
Joan (Barbara Bernier) is definitely freaked out, and not helped by her aunt Harper (Marygail Isobel Lakner), who has apparently seen things she shouldn’t have.
The action begins with a distress alarm and Harper running into the house through the front door. The audience follows her inside. The first scene is Harper and Joan, with the niece going fetal on the sofa. In scene two we travel to the garage, a factory where Joan and co-worker Todd make elaborate hats for parade over six scenes (blackouts are a simple light switch flick, and the storage detail in that space is a nice touch). Then we move to the dining room for a scene with Harper and Joan, and move slightly toward the back door as Joan takes off.
Richardson has thought this one through; she and her cast infuse the necessary tension and create a sense of dread. It’s not the typical kind of horror, but a fright of what could be happening in the world outside this house in a normally quiet neighborhood (although it’s a smallish city with two large universities, so it’s probably not so quiet).
And though the prisoners are only talked about in the play, Richardson has created video that involves a large military-esque dance number with about 15 other people, featuring the Sundowners and their friends, and screened in the garage. It's the best use of video I've seen in years from any small theater company. (View the video at the bottom of this review.)
We’re never clear on what’s happening out there, but nature is involved, and Joan's probably not the only one freaking out. With the paranoia happening in this country now, mostly fostered by fearmongers like FOX News talking heads—and let’s not even get to the recent wackadoodle conspiracy stuff from our state’s governor (you know, the federal takeover of territory they already own)—it’s oddly prescient. Far Away preceded 9/11 by about a year, and feels even more important with the hindsight we now have.
The women in the cast are particularly great. There’s a mix of innocence and wise-beyond-her-years in Bernier’s face, she's not just exhibiting irrational behavior; and Lakner has the aura of a soothsayer. Churchill doesn’t have many stage directions, and Richardson handles her staging with confidence and a respect for the play’s rhythms. Admittedly, I haven’t seen much Sundown work in recent years, but this production takes me back to the stronger fare of earlier seasons.
Here’s hoping the house theater trend continues, and that producers are sensible enough to use these nontraditional spaces in interesting ways.
» Note: Originally I said this was the area premiere of this play, but Angela Wilson, the playwright and actress and who used to run the much-missed Theatre Quorum, reminds me that TQ did Far Away at the Festival of Independent Theatres. My aging mind regrets the error. The review has been updated accordingly.
» Here's the video used in Far Away: