14 March 2014

Wherein I discuss Maryland Entertainment Group's inaugural production: "Laundry & Bourbon" and "Lonestar"

If MEG stages it, will they stay through intermission?

It has been over a week now, and this draft has lingered in a text file, half-finished like unfolded laundry on the table. But as it takes clothes longer to drop out of fashion than it does for these words to lose their relevance, I will therefore attend my thoughts, folding and checking for holes. And so we begin:
As someone who has observed and helped stand up a new arts organization starting from nothing more than a dream and a bloody-minded stubborn streak, I know that many things have to happen for a young group to be successful in staging a performance. You have to have the space, the time, the resources (both human and capital), and the talent to make the right decisions. Even when all of those pieces come together, you still need a dash of luck and a touch of Grace. Could the Maryland Entertainment Group (MEG for those in the know and for the rest of this essay) mix together the various elements of theatre and create life on the stage? Or would they, despite their best efforts, find themselves at the end of the night with an empty bottle and the smell of methane in the air (that's a science joke, not a fart joke)? Stick with me, friends and all will be revealed. Not so much revealed. Talked about. Written of, if you will. Look, I am going to let you know if the plays were any good; can we just get on with this?
Thank you.

The Lofts at Mulberry are MEG's home. Converted factory space, the large rooms with high ceilings and abundant windows (you know, /lofts/) are more than enough to stir the thoughts of even the marginally creative. Considering the abundant creativity of the MEG power couple Sam and Alyssa Little, the space that is MEG has been crackling with potential since they discovered it. The trick as I understood it was converting that potential into definite art. To collapse the infinite probabilities of potential occurrences into a single production. To execute.
Even long established organizations know that the selection of the piece to perform is crucial, and when you are building something from the ground up without an existing audience it becomes imperative. The Kennedy Center can stage the occasional dud, absorb the hit, and book the next big thing. Newcomers like MEG need to get it in one, and in choosing "Laundry & Bourbon" and "Lonestar", they had a good foundation of words on which to build their house.
A matched set of plays depicting two sides of life in a small Texas town around 40 years ago, "Laundry & Bourbon" and "Lonestar" come with compact casts, compelling drama, and plenty of laugh-out-loud moments; even a few opportunities for some well-choreographed slapstick. Now all that was left was to build a set, cast the show, and handle the myriad other tasks related to putting on a play.
This is where I had originally thought to go into detail describing the process of set building, light-wrangling, rehearsing, and marketing a show. For that I realized I need to interview Sam and or Alyssa to obtain the necessary details, as all I have are snippets of conversation, moments of visitation, and my own observations from seeing something similar come together when Hub Opera was born those years back. Rather than fictionalize their efforts, I will simply state that Damn they worked hard to put this together and the hard work paid off. It almost requires an essay unto itself. Or an entire website devoted to the craft of technical theater and theater marketing. These tales are beyond the scope of this essay is what I am driving at.
Okay, fine, Rob. We get it, the production came together. We take-as-read that they found their play and built their set and found their actors, but was the performance any good? Did anyone show up? Your patience is rewarded, dear reader, with a single word:


I should just end the essay right there, but if you have read anything by me, you know that is simply not possible and the fact remains:


I had the pleasure of capturing photos of a dress rehearsal the week before the show went up. I found myself repeatedly caught up in the moment even as I composed my shots; no longer taking photos of a dress rehearsal, but documenting a scene from someone's life. Through the aperture of the lens as I adjusted for lighting and character blocking and trying to capture the moment as the director intended, I felt myself drawn into their world. Not a photog, not someone in audience for a play, but perhaps another friend, a drinking buddy, sitting silently to one side as these people played out these moments in their life. Only I had a camera and a zoom lens.
The actors breathed life into their characters, making them relatable as much as they were compelling to witness inhabiting the stage.
Elizabeth (Alyssa), married young and suffering in the summer heat as her husband Roy had been away, fighting his demons of lust, nostalgia, and post-traumatic stress. Her friends Hattie (Becky Grow) and Amy Lee (Rachel Kern), who offer companionship and comfort as their own lives teeter on the brink of their own brand of blue collar or upwardly-mobile chaos. Love, children, the social pecking order, things familiar to all of us whether we are from Texas, Hagerstown, or even New York City.
After Intermission and a set change, Roy (Sam) struts out on stage, a still young good old boy broken by Vietnam who loves his wife Elizabeth but wants nothing more than to recapture the glory days of High School that were filled with good times and willing girls and no memories of far off wars. Roy, who breaks your heart and makes you laugh as he struggles with those demons as much as he struggles with the denseness of his younger brother, Ray (Jeremy Spangler). Ray, who has his own problems but loves and idolizes his older brother. In less than an hour they share the full tableau of brotherly interaction. Guidance, play-fighting, betrayal, real-fighting, making up, and ultimately acceptance.
Our third character, Poor Cletus T. "Skeeter" Fullernoy (Josiah Hixon), who also idolizes but is despised by Roy, orbits that fraternal nucleus wanting nothing more than to belong, but finds himself actively repelled by Roy. No matter what Skeeter tries, at times with disastrous results, he is treated by Roy like his insect namesake (how's that for some dramatic analysis?).
The night I saw the show performed for an audience the space was packed, and reports from MEG tell me that the other nights were also good audiences. MEG is an intimate space and so you are right there, with no hiding from the emotion spilling off the stage. And I mean that in a good way, not in an emoting contest of Shatnerian performances way. The cast for "Laundry & Bourbon" and "Lonestar" gave a lot to their audience, and we loved them for that. By the end of the performances I wondered how they had the energy to stand, much less come out and greet us and thank us for coming out. Talented, hard-working, and gracious, too.
I cannot wait to see the great things that MEG is going to accomplish for themselves and for our city in the months and years to come, and to be able to say that I was privileged enough to bear small witness to that spark of creation that shot out, making people and things and a room where people used to make other things in a different age into a space where art and creativity flourish is an honor that I certainly do not hold as unique, but feel honored just the same. I love what Sam and Alyssa have done and are doing, and if you did not see "Laundry & Bourbon" and "Lonestar", then you missed something special. Keep your calendar open and your eye fixed on the Maryland Entertainment Group, dear reader. They are at the start of something amazing for all of us. And yes, the play was good.
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