Brandywine Distillery Fire
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 12, 2010
Brandywine Distillery Fire, a new play written by Matt Freeman and directed by Michael Gardner, presents itself as a theatrical experiment and also as a kind of elaborate goof. It was created, the press materials tell us, by Freeman and Gardner working with a group of actors to deliberately build a play the "wrong" way, shunning narrative and theme and instead relying on inspiration and intuition to construct their text. (Is that actually "wrong"?) Further, we are told, Gardner and the performers developed "a performance style which mimics the play's stuttering, smiling 'failures'....Prominent words in a sentence are mis-stressed while adjoining and supplementary words are given weight." (This, in truth, happens only intermittently in the final performance.)
The result is quite entertaining. The seven actors involved get to do many cool things: Maggie Cino keeps emerging from under a loveseat that I never saw her get underneath in the first place. Alexis Sottile, standing in the audience, delivers a hilarious monologue about how great and smart an actor she is. Steve Burns, Kina Bermudez, and Sarah Malinda Engelke hold a pose for a reaaaaaallllly uncomfortably long time. Ivanna Cullinan suddenly works a giant follow spot from the corner of the stage. Moira Stone recites the most complicated nonsequitur nonsense monologue this side of Lucky's tour de force in Waiting for Godot.
And I've only just scratched the surface: Brandywine Distillery Fire, though only about 80 minutes long or thereabouts, shuttles rapidly through zillions of theatrical gimmicks and ideas, as if La Plume de Ma Tante or Laugh-In had been written by a bunch of theatre grad students steeped in Beckett, Brecht, Albee, Ionesco, and the rest of the 20th century absurdist/avant-garde canon, clear through to Brian Parks and C.J. Hopkins and Richard Maxwell. It is, though, never postmodern; never ironic, never self-mocking, never even self-aware, despite the occasional recursion of the material and the constant dismantling of the fourth wall.
The press release suggests that the play wants to "recalibrate an audience's ear and force the spectator to hear language anew." Fair enough; but I think it's about something even more interesting than that. For me, Brandywine Distillery Fire is about ritual and the act and idea of repetition. What does it mean to be an actor on stage who must, by design, do and say exactly the same things in exactly the same way performance after performance? Why is the ritualized aspect of such repetition somehow comforting, even as it is alienating? And might any of this have anything to do with life beyond the narrow confines of theatre?
That at least is what I found myself thinking about as I took in this fascinating work (and afterward, as well). Your results may well be different, for this is a rich stew. Expect to be surprised, expect to be confused at times, and expect to laugh a lot. Expect to think; I think Freeman and Gardner and their collaborators—who also include lighting designer Jonathan Cottle and board op Matthew Trumbull—are hoping you will actively engage with and not just passively enjoy their creation.
Let me quote one short marvelous passage to give you a flavor of the level of intelligent playfulness you'll find here (this comes from a "prayer" delivered by Sarah Engelke to an audience member who, for the moment, is standing in for God):
Let the New Covenant become Covenant 2.0, and let that Covenant come with features that are fashionable, even Holy. Let all of our Mobile Devices have service; let our bars be strong in times of peril; let all the teenage mothers who just died while I spoke be instantly forgiven...
I don't know if more experiments are planned by this group of theatre makers, but whatever any of them have up their sleeves next will be worth checking out. It's great that something fun and silly can also be smart and thought-provoking.