By Tristan Lejeune
We Happy Few is a young theatre troupe that is starting out right.
If they were a child, they’d still be in preschool, and the audience at one performance last week was scarcely bigger than the cast, but the fledgling flock of players is showing some intelligence regarding themes and choices.
After a couple of well-received Shakespeare adaptations, We Happy Few, which is currently performing at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop near Eastern Market, is doing its first original adaptation with Chalk, the kind of archetypal, speaking-with-symbols show from which actors and crew can learn as much as theatregoers.
Based on Chinese legend, Klabund and a number of other sources, Chalk is about a rural revolution, counterrevolution, and the people swept up in both. As such it is highly political and deals heavily with class structure. But it’s more about a fugitive servant (Natasha Gallop, a sympathetic lead) and what she must do to protect a baby born to the lady of a deposed house. As such it’s very personal and deals largely with intimate moments and shifts of motivation.
The peasants revolt minutes into this black box production, which, in contrast to the company itself, is rather slow to gain its balance. The space is too small for as much shouting as the audience gets thrown at it, and the character switches (the cast of seven plays dozens of parts) come too fast at first. Amid the opening fire and blood, the governor is hanged, his wife flees for the hills, and the lone heir falls into the hands a servant girl who became engaged that very Easter morning.
In short, it’s a lot of plot for a one-act. Director Kerry McGee is to be applauded for keeping it all together, but more so for keeping it entertaining.
In place of set, there are chalk outlines, and soon the actors are smeared and dusted with the places they’ve been, like old books. If Marx was right about the cycle of history, these guys have several more rides coming along the circle, too.
The props and costumes are also minimal and evocative of Brecht, one of Chalk‘s strongest influences. This isn’t so much “a revolution” as it is Revolution. The war doesn’t really get a name because it’s The War. Long before a judge (a well-cast Josh Adams) draws a circle on the floor to help answer a question of maternity, this play has shown that would rather peddle in myth, and it harnesses Brecht’s blend of cynicism and whimsy to get there.
No one on stage takes themselves too seriously, thank goodness, and everyone understands the mood and message of the piece. First among equals might be Raven Bonniwell (a We Happy Few co-founder) and Ann Fraistat, who slip into guises both proletarian and aristocratic as easily as changing gloves. Bits between these two actresses are among the best in the show.
The decision to tell a story so primal in nature (so told and re-told), gives a wider margin for error from scene to scene. It’s instincts like that that will serve We Happy Few well in the future.
Chalk paints in bright colors, and this is one crew that relishes getting its hands dirty.