On the evening of March 6th I saw the same play twice on the same stage with a completely different cast.
Not only that, but the ten actors who made up the total number of cast members for these two shows had never before encountered each other in their roles, even though these were the 23rd and 24th performances of the script in this run.
The reality of this experiment was driven home for me when I heard one of the actors remark after the show, like the groom in an arranged marriage, “It was interesting to come out and see who my wife would be.”
Cafe Pen is a play written by Kristine Niven, put on by Artistic New Directions, assigned to five different directors, with five acting parts rehearsed by 25 different actors, none of whom know who will be playing the four other roles until the moment of encounter. In many ways, this experiment is like a mirror held up to real life.
Think about how many times you have been in a group with four other strangers who have never been together before. It happens all the time — in mass transit, in a store, in an elevator, on a crowded street, in a stadium, a theater, a place of worship, or a restaurant, like Cafe Pen.
In this play, four of the five characters know each other, one of the characters has never before been seen by the other four, and one of the four is returning after a long absence, renewing acquaintances in quick fashion. But, remember, none of the actors has seen any of the others in the roles they are playing and all five actors have been directed by different directors. It’s enough to make you take out your calculator and your logarithmic tables before you stop and realize there is an infinite number of possibilities in any performance or any set of human interactions for that matter.
The comfort that comes from repeated rehearsals in which actors unconsciously absorb each other’s performance ticks has been removed, hence the experiment, hence the “without-a-net” characterization.
From the name of the cafe you might conclude that the action in Niven’s play takes place in a salon for writers, a la Closerie des Lilas, but, in fact, you will find that this gathering spot is something quite different.
I sat in the same seat for both performances to keep at least one thing identical. The first thing I noticed is the differences in body type of actors playing the same role. Obvious, right? There is an interplay between the size of someone’s body, how much natural energy each of us possesses, and how we use our voices to complement or make up for shortfalls in the other two areas when the situation calls for it. So the larger man who may cut a more imposing figure needs his voice less to intimidate, and vice versa. One of the two sheriffs played it straight with his own twist while the other seemed at times to be channeling by turns, Jimmy Stewart and Sam Shepard.
Different pairs of actors positioned themselves differently. Where I was looking into the faces of actors no more the five feet from me as they delivered certain lines in performance 1, the same lines were delivered in performance 2 with the actors seated at a table, their backs to me.
Lines that got laughs in one performance did not in the other. Roughly, the same number of laughs were heard but in different places in the two performances.
I found the subtle contrasts between these two performances reminding me that I am from a very large family, that I had 14 aunts, all of whom valued family above all else and for the most part thought along similar lines, but if you gave them the same idea to express, even the same words, they would all do it slightly differently, and that difference would be their individuality. And then if each of them were to say these same words to the other thirteen at different times the same words would be said differently depending on which of the other thirteen aunts was on the receiving end, and then each would respond differently depending on who was speaking — a hall of mirrors for sure, but special mirrors that never give the same image, because there is no one image.
Niven gives us with accuracy and feeling the claustrophobic atmosphere of a small place in a small town, where the focus is a single “industry,” and not a very happy one at that. Yet, she gets across the inescapable humanity of the situation with laughter and keen observation.
The bus stops at Cafe Pen. Look in and find out what it’s all about. To get the full experience, do it more than once. It’s well worth it. THIS PRODUCTION IS CLOSED – go to http://www.artisticnewdirections.org for more information.
Written by: Kristine Niven
Directors: Sara Berg, Carla Cantrelle, Christine Cirker, Janice L. Goldberg, Kelly Haran
Frank: Bruce Fuller, Stephen Bradbury, Dan Meehan, Jr.; Frank Hankey, Douglas Hartwyk
Penny: Elizabeth Acosta, Margot Avery; Barbara J. Spence; Kristine Niven; Jill Melanie Wirth
Tracee: Sara Berg, Carla Cantrelle, Christine Cirker, Janice L. Goldberg, Kelly Haran
Marge: Yan Xi, Carla Cantrelle, Kate Neuman, Connie Perry, Margaret Geraghty
Henry: Billy Davis, David Marx, Timothy Keir, Jared Wilder
Stage Managers: Kian Ross; Keaton Grant; Teresa Ysias; Molly Ballerstein; Jim Armstrong
Set Design: Bradley Wehrle, Lighting Design: Marie Yokohoma, Costume Consultant: Sean Sellers