nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 6, 2007
Townville, the extravagant new production from CollaborationTown, is as ambitious as anything you'll see this year. Grand social statements, bright Technicolor sets, and a live band are just three of the numerous elements that vie for stage time. This is a show with big picture thinking that also wants to shamelessly entertain. And while it misses the mark in a couple of fundamental ways, it also has more than enough going for it to make theatergoers glad that it attempts as much as it does at all.
The show's namesake is an intentional community populated by hard-working artists who are trying to create a model society. They believe that life can (and should) imitate art, and promote that ideology by example. The citizens burst into spontaneous song and dance daily (the town square is fitted with a sprung wood floor for that purpose); there is no cursing or famine or war in Townville, nor does anyone suffer for their art; the townspeople maintain high aesthetic standards in the hopes that doing so will influence the rest of the world around them.
Townville is under the jurisdiction of a nebulous governmental body called The Authority, which commissions a new show from them. The townies are thrilled at this prospect, but once they begin rehearsals weird things start happening. People start disappearing mysteriously and at an alarming rate. A sense of dark foreboding creeps into the town, and before long the cracks in Townville's shiny happy façade begin to show.
Some of those cracks are evident right at the start, like the townspeople's penchant for calling each other "neighbor," either in lieu of their name or as a prefix, like "Neighbor Sue." Later on the citizens refer to the disappearances as "resignations": no one in Townville moves out or disappears, they "resign" instead. What kind of world is this?
Judging from what I think the creators of Townville would like the audience to believe, it's a totalitarian world where The Authority keeps a tight grip on those who toe the line, and an even tighter grip on those who don't. The way they keep the artists in line is by putting them all in the same town together and encouraging them to create pleasant musical confections that don't rock the proverbial boat.
But, who is The Authority? Townville remains deliberately vague on that point—and several others, as well—and that's where it begins to slip a little bit. Obviously, The Authority is supposed to represent the idea of power gone bad and corrupt, but keeping it that generic deprives it of further power. We know what's at stake for the residents of Townville if they remain under the thumb of the powers that be: oppression, censorship, and terror. But, what's at stake for The Authority if they can't retain an ironclad hold on their world? Why have they set things up that way?
Townville also has enough narrative threads for at least three shows, but never fully invests in them to convincingly propel it forward one hundred percent. This is too bad, because there are a lot of interesting subplots going on: the strange co-dependent relationship between Townville's star dancer and choreographer, Ginger and Stefan; the arrival of avant-garde outsider Jasper (Where did he come from? And how do new people get placed in Townville? Another detail that unfortunately gets glossed over.); the out-of-left-field prescient madness of town tour guide Sue. In trying to make sure they have enough room for everything they introduce, the creators of Townville let their focus become a little too diffuse.
But, the show is exciting in many other ways. It's very funny, and serves up a big helping of skillfully executed physical and verbal comedy (it's obvious, without reading the program, that many of the CollaborationTowners have a sketch comedy background). And the way Townville weaves music in and out of the story as a narrative tool, but without fully making the show a musical, is admirable. The production design is remarkable not only by indie theater standards, but by any standards. Last but not least is the mighty and optimistic attitude that courses through Townville: namely, the firm belief that art can indeed change the world. That the company can put their message across without a hint of doe-eyed naiveté is an achievement in itself.
Everyone in the stellar ensemble cast gives a distinguished performance. It's difficult to single out anyone in particular, but I will subjectively say that some of my favorites were Boo Killebrew as the painfully insecure Ginger, Duke Doyle in dual roles as a bespectacled geek and a French ballet dancer, Carly Cioffi as the overly cheerful Sue, and Geoffrey Decas as Townville's resident egotistical director. Matthew Hopkins and Ryan Purcell direct with clear-eyed precision and showman-like flair.
In one of Townville's group numbers, the citizens sing that they wish to be free and to make art. Theatergoers should be grateful that CollaborationTown has no such restrictions on them and can do what they like. This impressive young company has talent and a social conscience, and I hope they continue to nurture both qualities. In the meantime, I suggest paying a visit to Townville to see what these gloriously ambitious upstarts are doing right now.