Off Broadway, Play
HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue
Runs through 20 February 2016
BOTTOM LINE: A genuine, skillful, and joyful adaptation of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town as seen through the gifted pen of playwright Casey Llewellyn. O, Earth is a drop everything, must-see show.
When a press invite comes to you and offers a piece that includes Our Town, Portia DeRossi, and Stonewall pioneer Marsha P. Johnson in a play about how we “organize our togetherness,” you take it. To add to that, it’s brought to us by The Foundry Theatre, an illustrious company celebrating revolutionary thought with limitless potential. Putting these ideas all in the same space seems to qualify for that mission. And I honestly can’t say enough how much I loved my time spent with Casey Llewellyn’s charming, insane, and brilliantly crafted O, Earth.
There’s a curtain strung across the HERE upstairs stage, a cheerful reminder of yesteryear’s fourth wall grandeur. But this curtain is suspended several feet above the ground, which is covered in dark, rubber gravel. The curtain opening, and even the doorways, are at a similar height, placing us always on a different plane of understanding where doors don’t touch the ground. We float. The design here is by an extraordinary Adam Rigg who works some magic in simple ways with this gorgeous set.
There’s a familiar figure on stage, a middle-aged white man in turn of the century dress who greets us. It’s Thorton Wilder himself (Martin Moran), playwright of Our Town, seen in every high school and community theater across this country. And with good reason. It’s a tremendous, precocious, if dated play about community and daily life, traditionally performed in pantomime.
Here, Llewellyn has made one of the smartest homages to a play I have had the pleasure to see, where Emily, our young protagonist, learns that there is more to the world than pantomime. Later in the play, George, played by Jess Barbagallo, who we learn has recently adopted the gender pronoun “he,” continues his routine “daily life” exercise as Emily exclaims, “there’s nothing there.” And our Stage Manager is also evolving beyond the norm. In the traditional Our Town, the (male) Stage Manager is usually a docile, removed narrator, but here is played by the extraordinary Donnetta Lavinia, decidedly female and of color, who cannot resist educating and commenting on the journey of Emily’s loves, losses, and growing up in this estranged Grover’s Corners.
Director Dustin Wills isn’t afraid to take a million disparate things and smash them together. He and his design team lead us through well-organized chaos. Barbara Samuels’ vivid lighting color palate illuminates bright blue walls, shines rainbows, and even pulls off the coolest refrigerator ever seen on a stage. Montana Blanco’s costumes are zany and perfect.
I hesitate to add much more to the synopsis. The Foundry has done well by us to offer a program on our way out of the theater to preserve some surprises. And I’d like to do the same here. Suffice to say that there are some key characters that will delight you in this fantastical, contemporary collage of a vision of our 2016 America that can no longer be contained to a small town. We are global. And we seek connection and togetherness in a fractured, 140-character world. With some expert casting, The Foundry has woven a kaleidoscope of a play that brings queer history, recent and past, to the forefront. It's a play I would like to think the closeted Thornton Wilder would have appreciated, if not admired.
I laughed. I cried. I danced. O, Earth is a celebration that only good theater can reward us with. At the end of this play, we’re provided with synchronized choreography from the whole cast whilst perched on stools that’s weird and wonderful (from choreographer Chris Devita). I don’t think I was the only one refreshed and renewed by the words of Casey Llewellyn, so finely executed by director Dustin Wills, as we danced our way out onto the streets of Sixth Avenue, just mere blocks from Stonewall. You may want to bring your party there after the show, remembering what has come before. Act three of Thornton Wilder’s play is, after all, named Death and Dying. In O, Earth we are asked not to mourn the dead, but rather to think, honor, move forward, show up, and celebrate the new-found queer lives of our town.
(O, Earth is presented at HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue, through February 20, 2016. Performances are Tuesdays-Fridays at 8:30, Saturdays at 4 and 8:30, and Sundays at 4. Tickets are $35. More information can be found online at www.here.org and by calling 212.354.3101.)
O, Earth is written by Casey Llewellyn. It is directed by Dustin Wills. Scenic design by Adam Rigg. Lighting Design by Barbara Samuels. Costume design by Montana Blanco. Sound Design by Janie Bullard. Props and puppets by Raphael Mishler. The stage manager is Nicole Marconi, assistant stage manager is Jess Berkey, production manager is Jeff Drucker, and line producer is Amanda Feldman. Produce by Foundry Theater
The cast features Moe Angelos, Jess Barbagallo, Ato Blankson-Wood, Julienne “Mizz Julie” Brown, Emily Davis, Cecilia Gentili, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Tommy Heleringer, Martin Moran, and Kristen Sieh.
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Want to read or watch Thornton Wilder's Our Town? Available here: