The best of Triangle theater during 2001 consisted of challenging works whose creative staging rendered bold, political themes all the more compelling. Often drawing from experimental theater practices, these performances were not designed for the faint of heart, but rather for audiences willing to engage with what a growing number of local theater companies do best: bringing characters, ideas and emotions to life in an environment where performers and audience members enlighten each other.
Here are a Top Five and one honorable mention for Triangle theater in the past year.
Raleigh Ensemble Players' dynamic staging of this Holocaust drama made evident on a visceral level the fact that fascism collapses the public and private, the individual and the group, in complex ways. This is true especially for those of us who, like the gay characters in the play, have been the objects of its classification, exploitation and extermination schemes. By asking the audience to participate in Max, Rudy and Horst's journey from Berlin to a concentration camp, REP's artistic director C. Glen Matthews eliminated the distance between action and audience and forced spectators to assume a role in the choreography of fascism. In this brilliantly realized performance, REP challenged us to remember, or to imagine, what fascism feels like.
Uncle Tom's Cabin
Burning Coal Theater invited writer-director Randolph Curtis Rand to stage his postmodern palimpsest of Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic novel. Drawing on exhaustive research, not to mention six previous versions of the play, Rand directed a visual extravaganza in which each member of a cast of five inhabited all the characters in Stowe's narrative of slavery, Christian suffering and redemption: Uncle Tom, Little Eva, Eliza and Henry, the St. Clares, and Simon LeGree. By refusing to endorse the novel's well-intentioned racism, by denying a coherent relation between actor and character, and by creating a dialogue between Stowe's narrative and the diverse voices that have commented on it over the last century, the play reminded us of the centrality of race and performance in American culture.
The Laramie Project
This formally innovative work draws upon more than 200 interviews that members of Moisés Kaufman's Tectonic Theatre Project conducted with residents of Laramie, Wyo., just after Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered by hometown boys Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. Playmaker's Repertory Theater Company's performance derived power from Kaufman's "tectonic" approach--the play has no scenes, per se, only moments of testimony carefully juxtaposed with other moments--and from superb pacing and coordination. The actors moved far beyond impersonation as they relayed stories entrusted to them by the people of Laramie; the inevitable complexities and contradictions of the town's healing process were present, if muted. In the closing moments, for example, one man laments the high cost of restoring equilibrium: "The town's cleaned up, and we don't need to talk about it anymore."
A Euripidean penchant for exposing hypocrisy runs throughout Neil LaBute's plays and films; this trilogy of obsessive monologues is no different. LaBute asks us to consider four linguistically talented characters' decisions in order to confront the fact that human agency, not fate, is the source of their malaise, even though they remain cloaked in denial. REP's ingenious conceptualization of the theater's fourth wall--a seating arrangement that had the audience facing three outer walls of the performance space, which were covered with mirrors of all shapes and sizes--emphasized the single-minded intensity of LaBute's mission and yet freed the audience from its grasp. This fragmented spectatorship allowed audience members, like LaBute's characters, to experience the horror of the artifically imposed order of daily life and the guilty relief of disarray.
Deep Dish Theater Company's first production, directed by Paul Frellick, was, according to Independent reviewer James Morrison, "a polished, meticulous realization of Beckett's script, attuned to both the comic and the tragic dimensions of Beckett's work." It's no surprise that a theater company intrepid enough to locate their performance space in University Mall would be equal to the challenge of conveying both the absurdism and lyricism of Beckett's work. Frellick and company continued to enliven the Triangle theater scene with their chilling fall production of Cat's Paw, a play about terrorism whose power and prescience drew a capacity crowd to Deep Dish's Sunday afternoon performance and discussion.
Based on the fictional diary of a girl named Anna who commits suicide at 16 rather than acquiesce in the "paperdoll psychology" the adult world imposes on women, this feminist performance piece was written and directed by 15-year-old Enloe student Michael Quattlebaum, performed by a talented ensemble of high-school women, and staged by P.I.C.E.T. and Youth Voice Raleigh. Given mainstream media's ubiquitous distortion of feminist political positions and ad hominem attacks on feminists (let's not even mention the name Hillary Rodham Clinton), Quattlebaum and his troupe are to be commended for their enthusiasm in tackling a controversial subject--the continuing necessity of feminist critique--as well as for reveling in the radical experimentation of performance art itself.