Perhaps it’s wrong of me to make assumptions of my audience, but I suspect that regular readers of Playlist are largely the sort of folks who appreciate nontraditional performance spaces. We’ve run plenty of pieces over the past couple of years celebrating performances in unexpected places like garages, kitchens and warehouses, all of which reveled in the uniqueness of the space. That’s totally understandable. When you’re really into art, it’s only natural that you should dig on seeing it presented in an innovative way.
But as we’ve discussed before, a lot of mainstream arts criticism isn’t necessarily written for people who are really into art. While seeing a show in unexpected or even slightly sketchy environs is a selling point for a lot of us, that’s not always the case for the kind of casual viewers who require a columnist’s cajoling to head out to the theater at all. With that in mind, I had a look at how a cross-section of local critics approached one recent non-traditional staging.
Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare appears to be the kind of play that demands, or at least benefits from, unorthodox surroundings. It’s a story about a small group of quarantined Plague survivors holed up together in close quarters in 17th Century London – the type of subject matter that seems ideally matched to the type of audience who’d be excited to see a play in the basement of the Soap Factory. For those who’ve never been in the basement of the Soap Factory, let me explain that the space looks very much like the basement of a former soap factory. It’s dark and dank and cavernous and creepy – downright basement-like, you might say.
It’s not surprising that nearly every review of Theatre Coup d'Etat's staging of One Flea Spare takes note of how appropriate a setting it is. It’s the opening hook of Ed Huyck’s effusive City Pages piece: “It's no coincidence that to get to Theatre Coup d'Etat's latest production, you have to walk down a somewhat dark and worn concrete staircase at the Soap Factory. Naomi Wallace's One Flea Spare is a descent into the underworld — into a veritable hell on Earth.” Huyck goes on to call the play “an absolutely engrossing piece, led by strong performances from a quintet of actors and a spare aesthetic brought forth by the austere environs of the Soap Factory's chilly, concrete-floored basement.” Huyck captures what seems to be the prevailing sentiment – that the Soap Factory surroundings are not essential to the success of the play, but they sure don’t hurt its impact any.
Susan Woehrle in l’étoile also opens with the location: “The Soap Factory may not be known primarily as a venue for theater, but the space in their basement is appropriately dusty and claustrophobic for Theatre Coup d’Etat‘s new production of One Flea Spare.” The subtle difference in phrasing between Woehrle’s piece and Huyck’s brings to mind a chicken-and-egg scenario – is Wallace’s play especially suited to the Soap Factory basement, or is the Soap Factory Basement especially suited to Wallace’s play? I suppose the answer depends largely on whether you’re a local arts denizen who puts a lot of stock in the Soap Factory seal of approval or a theater lover who’d turn out for a Naomi Wallace play regardless of the venue.
Of all the reviews I found, Jill Schafer at Cherry and Spoon makes the space sound most integral to her viewing experience. “It doesn't get much more intimate than this space, with just a few rows of seats on three sides of the small square that serves as the stage. There's nothing between the audience and the actors, and all of their performances are almost too real. I was completely drawn in by them, almost to the point of feeling uncomfortable as if you're eavesdropping on some very intense conversations.” Later, she picks up on a lovely, eerie touch that’s specific to this space: “The surroundings are well-incorporated into the set, most effectively in the concrete floor of the basement that is momentarily marked by the water that is splashed on it, until it drinks it up.” She even ends the review with a truly Minnesotan footnote: “It really is chilly in the basement, so bring a sweater.”
I found Schafer’s take on the importance of the space heartening, as I often wonder if my own preference for non-traditional spaces is grounded in a true appreciation of what they bring to the art or in my deep-seated contrarianism. Give me a choice between seeing a show in a traditional theater or a spooky basement and I’ll take the basement almost every time, largely because it makes a better story. For instance, one of my favorite live music experiences was seeing Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs play “Little Red Riding Hood” in a second-floor New Orleans bowling alley at 4 a.m. on a Wednesday. It was an amazing thing to see, but when I reflect on it, I realize that I don’t remember much about Sam the Sham’s actual performance. What I relish is the combination of an oddball artist and a surreal setting, and I’m not sure if that’s giving proper due to the art itself. It pleases me to see that, for most of the local critics, the union of One Flea Spare and the Soap Factory basement goes a little deeper than that.
And then just when I’m feeling good about the justification of non-traditional spaces, I read Matthew A. Everett’s glowing review for TC Daily Planet, which doesn’t deem the performance space worthy of mention until a brief navigational note in the final sentence. Ah well, I suppose a consensus would be too much to hope for.