There’s a lot of subtext when we talk about Community as it pertains to theater. Indeed, there can be the suggestion of air quotes associated with this particular descriptor and in some cases, community attaches a meaning decorated with gentle excuses (due to budgetary and talent constraints) and the setting of less-than-professional or even-less-than entertaining, expectations. Community Theater sometimes celebrates the journey more than the end product. The phrase maybe praises people’s artistic endeavors and “puttin’ on a show” over the quality of the art itself. It’s a bit of an elephant in the room and while not always wholly inaccurate it certainly has an unjust dismissive quality about it and doesn’t apply to all theaters or all of their productions. In the case of the Town Hall Theatre Company in Lafayette and their production of The Revolutionists, the space, company and the production embrace the highest, most positive definition; professional, relevant, enjoyable, witty, intelligently crafted and an overall fantastic experience from start to finish.
The theater experience often begins when you walk through the door (or even earlier) and as I arrived, I was delightfully greeted by a lobby of volunteer musicians cheerfully playing show tunes and a veritable seniority of patrons-of-a-certain age congregating amidst a smattering of cabaret tables. A variety of younger patrons assembled by the bar chatting also taking in the pre-show entertainment. I was drawn in by the sweet mix of friendly faces and the great care to create a space of inclusion and engagement. Decorations, themed activities, even the plaque of acknowledgement of the donors responsible for saving trees via a hand dryer installation in the restroom was charming. This isn’t a wholly unique set up I hear you say, and you’re right, but it felt different and it felt especially lovely. The attention to details in the shape of the experience was perfect and that attention was absolutely carried through to the show itself.
The stage is simultaneously quaint and quite striking. Tucked in the upper floor of an historic building, the stage is intimate and comfortable and feels a bit like a clandestine loft where magic and mysteries are stowed for eons. I imagine it’s a challenging space to work with on some levels too, but the production team really rose to the occasion and were creative and smart with their tech and stage direction. I was a bit in love with the way the actresses interacted with the mirrored element of the set design, and the costuming felt appropriate and appealing, as did the lighting and the sound design. Technical elements were for the most part very well done, cohesively setting the proper mood and ambiance without upstaging any performances. The metaphorical angles and confinements represented in set, lighting and costuming were all very much appreciated.
This is a regional premiere and I know there are other companies already set to produce this play in their seasons. The opportunities to catch it will be plenty (and you should see it whenever you have a chance), but I have to emphasize you will be hard pressed to find such a perfect cast when it comes to comic delivery. First impressions are so important, and I bought every take, every bit of timing and every expression (be it subtly nuanced or farcically exaggerated) without hesitation when it came to the funny. The casting is fantastic, and it was lovely to watch a tight ensemble of women present well-crafted, intentional, thorough characters. It’s a misconception by some (and a travesty if you ask me) to believe that funny can’t be sophisticated. I’d argue that true wit is perhaps the most sophisticated of our human traits/experiences. There are genuine laughs throughout this show based not only on smart writing but on extremely talented execution. This is the type of comedy, in my experience, that you can guide and enhance, but you really can’t teach. It’s inherent and all 4 ladies possess it in spades. They are listening to each other, they are respecting strong, meaningful choices and it really works. The words, the deeper connotations of the text and these brilliant choices are resonating in real-time without coming off as preachy, jarring or trite. That is a feat. These women are masterfully telling a story that is all at once past, present and future. It is feminine, and it is not. It is simple and rich and bold and silly and poignant and fierce and contemporary and timeless. AND, it is freaking funny. If you know me you know I love to laugh, but I’m stingy on actual laughing; you have to work for it. This show from page to stage legitimately earned my laughter.
That I laughed a lot during this show, in and of itself might be “enough” for a visit to Lafayette, but this is particularly significant given that I typically feel that meta theater (plays within a play, an over abundance of theater industry “inside jokes”, structure based on theatrical process etc.) can be more than just kind of annoying. Meta can feel super alienating for those not as familiar with the behind the scenes practices, terminology and in this case history as well as theater history. I personally don’t like sitting in an audience that feels more divided and lost than unified. Meta (even when I’m on the “in the know” side) is a trend I find tiresome if not done extremely well. Luckily the skillful dealing of this show’s prominent meta elements resulted in no major theatrical derailment.
Indeed, this is a love letter to the process of playwriting (among many other things), and admittedly a pretty clever homage much of the time. There are a few forced, excessively self-indulgent, and predictably formulaic moments to contend with in the script, but it’s mostly consistent to form and ultimately makes sense. The most challenging and least successful parts of the production were the more dramatic moments and I honestly couldn’t tell if this was a slight script weakness or the actors struggled a bit with how to transition to the more emotional realm. Their performances of the serious sections (which make up a small minority and fall mostly in the second act) weren’t poor by any means, just noticeably less confident I think. This is a very timely play. Frighteningly so. On so MANY levels. It’s a play that will generate conversation, particularly among women I think, but not at all exclusively so. It’s an important piece, but it’s also so well done and such a fun time. At the end of the day, we have a lot of opportunity for deep, intelligent, moving and disruptive arts experiences which mirror so closely our own real turmoil… sometimes it’s REALLY nice to have the vehicle that delivers hard truths, philosophies, and declarations be so cathartically humorous.
One more note on the experience here as a whole. In an impossibly cute and epically defining move that really tickled me, a volunteer with complimentary cups of cold water walked the aisles at the very top of intermission. It’s a little thing perhaps, but I have NEVER seen this done. This was going the extra mile. This was knowing their audience. This was also just pure kindness, and it makes a huge difference. I’m not part of this specific community, but I felt like it immediately and that is meaningful, especially in today’s charged political climate. It’s also a pertinent theme in the show that’s explored. It’s fascinating to observe (both on and off stage) that at times of great division and even revolution, we see simple acts of kindness and solidarity take on an invaluable significance and the most comforting camaraderie materialize from perceived thin air.
As a native Palo Altan, I’m a tad embarrassed to say I initially had to look up where Lafayette was located. Ashamed further, I discovered it’s practically next door to Pleasant Hill where I have close family. Triply abashed I am to say that I’ve spent 35 years or more attending theater and never stepped foot in this adorable and dynamic space. That changed last week and I am supremely happy it did. I will absolutely be returning. Well worth the drive (and even a bridge toll should you geographically require that expense) an unchallenged 4 ½ out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for this truly witty, germane, thoughtful, and unexpected refreshing theater experience that proudly puts the “commune” as well as the “come on in” in community. The Revolutionists plays through October 20th at the Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette.