BOTTOM LINE: A brilliantly constructed piece of stagecraft. Well-acted, well-directed, well-designed; the evening absolutely flies by.
I rediscovered my faith in theater Saturday night sitting in a neon-colored lawn chair in The Duke on 42nd Street. You see, in addition to writing about theater, I work in theater, and with this immense privilege comes the unfortunate side effect of theatrical apathy. Not only do I end up sitting through colossal amounts of mediocre, uninspiring theater, but being part of the creative process is sometimes like knowing the trick behind the magic - it takes away a lot of the appeal. Fortunately my apathy is not a permanent condition, because no matter how jaded I become, there eventually comes along something that renews the allure of theater. Black Watch at St. Ann's Warehouse did it for me a few years back, as did the staged reading of Hair at the Delacorte prior to its long summer run. Now I can add the Transport Group's See Rock City & Other Destinations to that list.
At its most basic, See Rock City is a collection of short musical Americana plays, with the throughline that they all take place on various road trips. Normally this would be a major turn off for me. Short play festivals, collections, evenings of short plays - whatever they are called, they aren't normally my thing. But as done here, I might begin to rethink my prejudice. The stories are simple: three sisters meet to spread their father's ashes, two prep school kids skip school to go to Coney Island, a woman takes her grandfather on an annual excursion to visit the Alamo. I found myself thinking several times that See Rock City was like a particularly good episode of NPR's This American Life.
The strength of this production isn't in any one of its characters or journeys, it's in the mosaic-like cross cut of humanity you see by the end. Each story lies delicately on top of the one before it, and somewhere midway through the evening, I looked back and thought to myself "Oh I get it!". "Road trip" isn't the only throughline: See Rock City is about fear and possibility and hope and bravery. I'm going to completely gush here and say that the cast and creative team have taken each one of these elements to heart; these themes shine through every bit of this production. The acting is sincere and open. Director Jack Cumming III explores every nook of the theater space as a potential patch of Earth to tell a story. And oh yeah, by the way, it's a musical, and wow can this cast sing.
Perhaps the thing that excites me most about See Rock City is its strength as a fully realized theatrical project. Not once do you get the feeling that someone said "Yeah, that's good enough," and then moved on. Every detail seems completely thought through, and this is prominent nowhere as much as in R. Lee Kennedy's innovative, creative and resourceful lighting. Kennedy has a Mary Poppins-like bag of lighting tricks. (Let it be known, the following might be vastly lacking in technical accuracy, but hopefully it gets the point across). In addition to a traditional grid of stage lights Kennedy uses large flashlights as headlights, LED flashlights, a gaggle of hung lights, fluorescent industrial tube type lighting, swirly circus lights, flood lights, mirrors and a whole slew of other tricks to light his actors and more importantly tell the stories. Using non-traditional lighting on stage can be a tricky thing: I've seen it done before where the idea was nice, but the audience had to squint to see the actors, or else the gimmick overshadowed the scene. That is not the case here - Kennedy works his art with subtlety, creativity and complete servitude to the story being told.
If there is one thing that I have qualms with, it is the seating method. In a non-traditional, very effective move, the audience is seated on all four sides of the space in various styles of lawn and beach chairs. The seats are not numbered - it's general admission. However, instead of allowing patrons to find a seat as they arrive (you'll understand why when you enter the space), the audience waits behind taped lines and then claims their seats right before the show begins, once the tape is pulled up. The result is a panicky chaotic scramble. I saw more than one group split up and watched an older gentleman toddle in a bit of a panic to a seat. Be ready to sprint. It's a small detail, but relevant if you're super picky about your seats or have issue with speed. Most of the seats are fine, but there are a few that have sightline problems. For what it is worth, try not to sit in the few seats that are closest to the doors you enter, and also avoid the section that is directly opposite the doors (that is, just to the left of the scaffolding, as you look at it). The ideal scenario - try to snag a seat in the center of one of the other three sections.
Go see See Rock City. Take a friend, take an open mind, and bask in the beautiful reflection of American life.
(See Rock City & Other Destinations, a production of the Transport Group, plays at The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, through August 15, 2010. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. There is also a 2pm matinee on Wednesday August 4. Tickets are $48, general admission, and are available at The Duke's website or by calling 646.223.3010. Subject to availability, $10 student tickets are available at the box office 2 hours before each show. There is NO late seating. For more information visit www.transportgroup.org.)