by Raphael Badagliacca
This is a review unlike any of the others I’ve written because this is a play unlike any of the others I’ve seen. Notice that the photograph attached, which usually shows the performers at some high point in the action, is an empty set. This is to visualize the fact that in this unique theatrical experiment none of the actors knows who will be encountered in the rest of the cast until it happens. I also don’t want to compromise the experiment by showing a particular collection of actors since no one combination ever repeats across the 25 performances.
Let me explain. And in the process, try to express why to get the full impact I saw the play twice tonight – two consecutive opening performances, each a little more than one hour long. This review of a play is also a review of an experiment that sheds light on the play experience.
There is one script. There are five directors. There are five casts of five actors. After the five sets of five actors complete the rehearsal phase each set with one of the directors, the actors are shuffled repeatedly so that no two combinations of five actors is ever the same in the actual performances, and no actor knows in advance who will be met on stage.
This is the brainchild of AND (Artistic New Directions) Theatre Company, an undiscovered gem in the NYC theater community. This is the fifth time AND has conducted the experiment – called “Without-a-Net” – in the last 8 years with a different script each time. The original script was written by Gary Garrison and Roland Tec. The subsequent four scripts, including this one, have been written by Kristine Niven.
The lights have mysteriously gone out in the library, except for one basement room, outfitted to be a cold war era bunker with its own generator. It’s in this room that the characters in the play happen upon each other, periodically wrestling with the electronically-controlled door, firmly shut. Winston, Pennsylvania is a small town where everyone seems to be related or hold a long-standing grudge. Conversation crashes against the rocks of familiarity. The overriding topic is the library itself, on the floors above, unseen, but ever present.
Things that have been the same for years are suddenly in transition. The library is being renovated, but no one’s quite sure of the architectural details. There are rumors of personnel changes. A new wing is being donated and the debate between the influence of money and unfettered learning have raised their heads. These are all timely subjects for the audience. There is significant press these days about the uniqueness of libraries as public places, a recent best-seller called “The Library,” and a movie on the same subject is about to hit. Library issues like censorship, changing attitudes across time, and the differences between e-books and physical books weave their way into the script.
But mostly the play is about relationships, like every play. If you see it more than once it also becomes clear how much of acting is about choices. In the standard play the actors are working out a single director’s vision. In this experiment five different directors’ visions interplay, each represented by one of the actors. Then it happens again and differently with the next performance.
In the standard play, the actors have rehearsed together until they know the script and each other cold. In this experiment, the encounter on stage is always fresh. In that way, the audience and the actors share an experience, both encountering the players on stage for the first time.
If you see the play more than once, you will notice what different energy levels each of the actors brings to the role – the combined result of the interaction, the actor’s understanding of the character, and the personality of the actor. And then it repeats in a different permutation the next time.
Viewing the play more than once you will notice that different actors emphasize different words differently, deliver lines from different positions on the stage, and choose to focus on different props, and each of them may do it differently each time they do it.
What it all brings home is this: if theater is an experiment that reflects on life, this particular theater experiment continually reminds us that life is a series of encounters with random elements. What happens one way could have happened another way or another way.
See it once. See it more than once. But see it!
Runs through April 14. Shetler Studios, 244 West 54th Street, one show $15; more than one show, add $10.
written by Kristine Niven
directed by: Molly Ballerstein, Irene Carroll, Janice L. Goldberg, Rani O’Brien, Gene Santarelli
with 5 casts of 25 different actors, but we can’t tell you who they are.