Review: ‘Beertown’ at dog & pony dc at Thurgood Marshall Center for Service & Heritage

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I’d never been to Beertown, though I knew it by reputation as a must-visit burg. Folks had told me of this storied hamlet in the heartland where the local citizenry gather every five years to remember and reevaluate their past, reconnect with who they are, and reunite as a community. I knew one day I’d have to go there for myself. Because how many small towns ever do that, look backward and inward at once? And of those earnest villages that try to, how many know how to do it well? More to the point, how many have figured out how to make their polis a more perfect union by making it a place for everyone?

The cast and audience of a performance of 'Beertown.' Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.
The cast and audience of a performance of ‘Beertown.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

It may take a village to be a village, but civic cohesion is complicated, and municipal consensus is messy.

I knew going to Beertown was going to be quite a trip (literally, because I don’t have a car to get there). Thankfully the good folks at dog & pony DC have brought to town their very accurate simulacrum of a Beertown town hall meeting—held in an actual local gymnasium, festooned in blue bunting for the occasion—and peopled it with friendly townsfolk, whom they play-act very persuasively. So convincing was the ambiance and amiability I found, in fact, that as soon as I walked in with my nametag on and was warmly welcomed, I began to feel like a Beertonian myself. Like I had shown up an outlier but was about to belong.

And that was the most curious thing. The way the play-acted people treated me and talked to me began to turn me into someone I’m not—just as if I was play-acting too!

I was a little anxious about all this. I didn’t want to be brainwashed into any cult or anything (smiley face)! Plus I’m naturally standoffish, and if something promises audience participation I’m inclined to stay home. So I went straightaway to the dessert buffet, which was laden with a potluck of cookies and other goodies. Thereupon I got a sugar rush that calmed me down.

Around the gym were displayed placards about the history of Beertown along with some relevant artifacts. (Afterward I discovered the town’s tourist-friendly website, where I learned lots more.) Turns out artifacts are a big deal for Beertonians. Like yuge. For more than a century they’ve kept an assortment of oddments in a time capsule that they open every five years to decide by majority vote which new artifacts should go in and which former ones should come out. They call it their Quinquennial Time Capsule Celebration and this was their twenty-first. An agenda in the printed programs on our seats listed all the separate ceremonies this process entails. It also included lyrics to the uplifting (if awkwardly phrased) “Beertown Hymn,” which at one point everyone sang, newcomers and veteran play-actors alike.

Behind each object selected for the time capsule is a story of its enormous historic, emotional and/or artistic importance, and during the program proponents of new  accessions made speeches to stir up sufficient votes.

I was seriously surprised how full of feeling and moving these speeches were. Suddenly what had seemed simply an interesting if quirky emulation of a small-town ceremony went deep into personal lives and moistened some eyes. Certainly mine welled up. One Beertonian who was Deaf put forth a book she related to as someone who always felt like an outsider. Another Beertonian put forth a military medal to honor a veteran who had came home from serving his country in Iraq only to end up homeless. Yet another Beertonian who was black put forth a wooden shoe shine kit that was made by and belonged to his beloved father.

Suddenly these three singular stories became synecdoches for the sorrows, struggles, and aspirations of whole communities whose place within the body politic was contested and not yet assured. And significantly these stories were being told before a gathering of townspeople who now had to reckon as in a democracy with how best to do e pluribus unum.

For some apparently arbitrary reason there can be only thirteen artifacts in the Beertown Time Capsule at any one time, so debate about which should make the cut got heated. But the fact of that cap also imposed a communal discipline and commitment to peaceable protocol that was as instructive as it was inspiring.

The cast and audience of a performance of 'Beertown.' Photo courtesy of dog & Pony dc.
The cast and audience of a performance of ‘Beertown.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Mayor Michael Soch chaired the proceedings very proficiently such that when he declared the arguing over, the content of all the disparate characters in the room could find civil form: Votes were counted, the collection of artifacts updated, the time capsule closed for another five years, the meeting adjourned, and the event ended. Ostensibly ceremonial, it had actually been cathartic. Purportedly a town meeting, it had resembled the fractious U.S. system in microcosm. A seeming performance, it transformed hearts and minds.

Do go to Beertown. It’s a really nice place to visit. To eat dessert. To learn the lore. To meet new peeps. To play-act democracy. To practice conscientious inclusion and authentic civility.

If only we all could live there all the time.

But especially now.

Editor’s note: Our reviewer, John Stoltenberg, got kind of carried away with the artifice he experienced when he attended what was actually a remounting of the acclaimed dog & pony DC devised-theater piece called Beertown. As such the production had real credits, which John, absorbed as he was, neglected to mention. We have spoken with him about that.

Performers: Joshua Drew (Mayor Michael Soch), Jacob Yeh (Quiquennial Warden Franklin Li), Eileen Earnest (Archivist Joann Sugarman), Natasha Gallop (Patricia Brown), Amelia Hensley (Barbara “BB” Northup), DeJeannette Horne (Joseph Rodgers Davenport), Jon Reynolds (Fire Marshal Liam Murphy), James Caverly (Nate Brunner). Directed by Rachel Grossman. Designed by Colin K. Bills and Ivania Stack. Lead ASL interpreters: Brittany Quickel and Charlotte McGrath. Assistant Director: Kala Granger. Stage Manager: Sam Reilly.

Running Time (varies depending on how long Beertonians deliberate): Approximately two hours 30 minutes, including one recess.

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Beertown plays through November 7, 2016, at dog & pony DC performing at Thurgood Marshall Center for Service & Heritage – 1816 12th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.