By Pat Launer
Fact: Some people just do not like interactive theater
Fact: Whether you do or not, you aren’t obligated (or called upon) to participate
Fact: There is no such place as Beachtown, though it’s loosely based on Imperial Beach, a highly diverse waterfront community
The world premiere interactive, immersive play, “Beachtown” is based on the play “Beertown,” a prototype created by dog + pony dc, a theater company that specializes in this sort of theatrical immersion. Dog + pony artistic director, Rachel Grossman, made her piece generic, a kind of Anytown, USA, which has facilitated its use around the country. This is the tenth incarnation of the concept; ours is a good deal more tailored and specifically personalized to represent San Diego.
“Beachtown” is the baby of writer/actor/director Herbert Siguenza, a co-founder of the 30-year-old Chicano comedy trio, Culture Clash. On opening night, he had just been notified that his Andrew W. Mellon Foundation‘s National Playwright Residency, which allows him to be playwright-in-residence at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, will be renewed for another three years — which gives us four more years of his prolific talent and creativity.
The setup for his current enterprise, created with Rachel Grossman, is the 100th anniversary of the Beachtown Time Capsule. In the lobby, before the play begins, we read about the history of the town (with some wonderful details, many of them factually representing San Diego), partake of some excellent desserts, and meet the townsfolk (AKA Beachtonians), played by a talented group of local actors, under the direction of Sam Woodhouse.
There’s Steve Novak, the surfer-dude mayor (hang-ten, puppyish Jason Heil); Benny Ramos-Leibowitz, the Mexican-Jewish councilperson, a moderate conservative politically (serious and funny Salomon Maya, unequivocally in his character and his element); Susan Suhiro, the intense, no-nonsense, newly single (though that’s really irrelevant to the storyline), bespectacled town archivist (wonderfully inhabited by the beautiful Lee Ann Kim, whom it must’ve taken a lot to look mousey); right-wing reporter Damon Haynes (aggressively amusing Antonio T.J. Johnson, who also gets to do an impressive little Shakespearean turn); the hippieish Donna French (a riff on former local liberal politician Donna Fry, former member of the San Diego City Council), played with apt flower-power finesse by Marci Wuebben; and Rob Ruby, the town musician (William BJ Robinson, effective with his keyboard and vocals).
Every ten years, there’s a Beachtonian town council meeting, to open up the time capsule and remove one artifact, replacing it with something that better represents the present moment; or, as the mayor likes to say, “who we are today.”
There are seven ephemeral (changeable) artifacts in the wooden chest (functional, though it doesn’t look like a capsule of any kind); the group decides which one will be replaced this year. The audience has to weigh in on that decision, and then, weigh in again to determine — and justify — which of three proffered items should go in instead, and why.
For each performance, the three items and their attendant issues will vary, though what this adds to any given performance is unclear. Every performance will be different by definition, because every audience is different.
All this discussion engenders some very interesting interaction. The audience on opening night was more than willing to participate — actively, passionately and sometimes humorously.
But there are just too many items to discuss and it all takes too long. The town hymn and singalongs (re-worked, with rather lame lyrics, to familiar melodies) should be the first to go, along with the Guest Community Artist. Although it’s a noble idea to add entertainment to the proceedings, it’s unnecessary and unrealistic, and it increases the already-long running time. The night I was there, the performance was by PGK Dance. Attractive and appealing, but not related to the task at hand.
In aiming for verisimilitude, Siguenza has overloaded the basic script, which is augmented with a good deal of improvisatory dialogue. It’s also stuffed with all manner of superfluous activities, including the Invocation, Pledge of Allegiance, Oath of Civic Responsibility and Ephemeral Artifact Farewell, none of which adds much to the main objective.
Now that the piece is on its feet, it’s time to trim the fat. The intent should be to get it down to a fleet, 90-minute one-act. Nearly 2 1/2 hours is just too long to sustain the conceit.
That said, despite some silliness in the script, the interactions were lively and inventive. Some participants played along with the history, claiming to have been at the last meeting 10 years ago, or having visited some of the fictitious places named.
There has to be a better way to count the votes (hand-raising and one-by-one counts took a really long time). It’s fun to elect an Ombudsperson from the audience, to verify the counts and selections.
Most important, though, the artifacts represented many real issues of deep concern to San Diegans: immigration, gender equality, gay rights, treatment of veterans and the homeless crisis. This format truly gave people a platform to express their opinions, and to challenge the intentionally partisan viewpoints of the townspeople.
The actors were delightful, quick on their feet, and able to provide historical information and supportive evidence for their artifact selection or personal perspective. (By report, they were each given 85 pages of preparatory dramaturgical notes). A lot of the item and issue selection was based on Siguenza’s many interviews with San Diegans, and the historical realities of the region.
Does it all work? Yes and no. The simulation of the democratic process is highly effective, and elicited some interesting discussion. As a city, a county and a country, we need civil discourse now more than ever.
We all know that real town council meetings can go on for hours, but accuracy and veracity should only go so far. The objective here is certainly commendable. The community is anxious to play their part. But to make the effort really work, brevity should be respected as much as authenticity.
- “Beachtown,” runs through April 15 in the Lyceum Space at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza downtown
- Performances are Wednesday and Sunday at 7 p.m., Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinees are on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. There will be a Tuesday performance on April 10 at 7 p.m.
- Note: There is no Sunday evening performance on the closing day
- Tickets ($20-$65) are available at 619-544-1000 or sdrep.org
- Running time: 2 hrs. 20 min.
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.