Fringe shows have a way of sneaking up on you with profound messages when you least expect them. That’s exactly what happens with Beertown, currently onstage at Know Theatre. In fact, this touring project comes to Know’s mainstage from dog & pony dc, a company that’s appeared at Cincinnati Fringe Festivals twice in the recent past.
In this imagined small American town — perhaps somewhere in New England, where there’s a tradition of town meetings — we are attendees at a “quinquennial celebration.” We mingle with actors playing town officials and residents while we enjoy a pre-show dessert potluck. (Ticketholders are invited to bring something to share.) The solemn proceedings begin with the Pledge of Allegiance, the singing of “The Beertown Hymn” (lyrics provided in the program) and an “Oath of Civic Responsibility.”
Then it’s the celebration’s focus, the ritual opening of a time capsule — a wooden beer keg — in an event repeated every five years for the past century. The proceedings review the barrel’s “eternal” and “ephemeral” contents, ranging from serious artifacts (a hand-beaded Indian necklace, antique stereoscope photos, a family bible) to seemingly inconsequential items (a stack of pink slips from the closure of the brewery, a jar of smoke from a railroad fire). Several new items are proposed.
With the exception of dog & pony dc actor Wyckham Avery as Beertown’s patronizing mayor, the performers are Cincinnati actors: Andrew Ian Adams, Eileen Earnest, Mike Hall, Daryl Harris, Mindy Heithaus, Sean Mette and Aiden Sims. Several have significant improv experience, useful since the action has numerous permutations. As citizens and officials of Beertown, they solemnly execute the “20th quinquennial” ceremony to review and possibly update the contents with voluntary input from the audience. We in the audience are invited to discuss what’s important and vote to include and exclude items.
We watch vignettes (injected as “antecedents”) that fill in details. At the outset Beertown appears to be a tongue-in-cheek comedy (there’s a slyly comic program with ads for town businesses). But before the performance is over, with cleverly planted messages delivered by “townspeople,” you realize you’ve been part of a civic conversation exploring what’s meaningful to a community, and it’s been both thoughtful and entertaining.
I’m not a fan of theatrical audience participation. But Beertown worked for me.
• A very different community is explored in American Idiot, presented by the musical theater program at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. Based on Green Day’s 2004 Punk Rock album, the actors portray disaffected youth full of anger and angst about their futures in a post-9/11 world. Pre-show we watch a multiscreen assemblage of pop culture and news video from the late 20th and early 21st centuries; the action opens with an ominous video reminder of the 9/11 terrorist attacks before launching into the show’s in-your-face title number.
Although it has three central characters — Johnny (Ben Biggers), Tunny (Louis Griffin) and Will (Chris Collins-Pisano) — American Idiot unfolds in a way that’s more impressionistic than narrative, driven by thrashing Punk Rock musical numbers with passionate, hair-whipping, fist-punching choreography (excellently conceived by senior theater major Samantha Pollino).
The trio longs to escape the deadening humdrum of suburbia, but they end up on very divergent paths: Johnny and Tunny head for a big city, but quickly part ways as one discovers drugs and the other enlists in the army; Will stays back home with his pregnant girlfriend but spends most of his time stoned or drunk.
Each yearns for something more real, but the reality that comes their way is depressingly crushing. Johnny falls in love but can’t sustain his relationship with “Whatsername” (Clara Cox) because he’s constantly mesmerized by heroin — personified by his alluring alter ego St. Jimmy (John Battagliese). Tunny is seriously injured in battle and panicked about how he will cope; Will rejects parenthood and seems completely stalled. After much pain and futile searching, they find their way to stasis with glimmers but no guarantees of happiness.
The production is staged with sharp attention to its visual impact by Aubrey Berg, who deploys the amped-up cast all over Thomas C. Umfrid’s three-level set of metal scaffolding, with space for nine musicians, led by music director Steve Goers. They pound out Green Day’s grippingly anxious songs.
As should be apparent, American Idiot is no-holds-barred in terms of drug use, sexual content and profanity. It’s a show about needing to feel, and the paths it explores are not for the faint-hearted. But frankly — and I do mean frankly — that’s what it’s all about.
BEERTOWN, performed by Dog & Pony DC at Know Theatre, continues through March 19. AMERICAN IDIOT at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music is onstage until March 13.