Out toward the Bywater and perhaps a little to the east of the Bathtub, there's a place where the quest for brosia drives all, and words like "agency" and "scruples" form dividing lines. It's a village trying to survive despite possums and the people upriver, while remembering to forget.
This keenly imagined village is also the setting for an engaging evening of downtown New Orleans theatre. Possum Kingdom, a new work from Cripple Creek Theatre Company and its member-playwright Andrew Vaught, uses the setting and the interlocking lives of its characters to explore the ever-present battle between economics and way of life. While the themes and connections to Southeast Louisiana are announced in the program beforehand, it's the acting that carries the conviction instead of the message. The production also benefits from a clever, well-used outdoor space at the St. Claude Truck Farm.
Overall, it's an evening of theatre that captivates, and ultimately rewards the audience with a few surprises, and few thoughts to ponder over a beer. And that's true even if you don't stay for the talkback.
The story revolves around village dwellers Alder (Dylan Hunter), Marjorie (Kate Kuen), Fitz (Phil Yiannopoulos (Full disclosure: He writes about theatre for NOLA Defender)) and Pattison (Martin Bradford), as they seek to stave off the external forces that threaten the village's survival. Meanwhile, Inman (played by Vaught) acts a sort of middleman who serves as the link to the world outside the village, but also maintains a leadership role within.
During the play, the external forces are winning, mainly because the natural substance brosia is disappearing from the forest. In the most obvious parallel to the energy economics of South Louisiana, the scarcity of brosia means less to sell to the people "upriver," and a higher chance that the possums lurking in the forest will creep in, and ultimately kill the villagers. The plot – and tension – get heavier throughout, as possums move closer, a light goes out and the specter of an event from the past that is seldom discussed rears its head from the shadows of the forest – literally.
The roles demand intensity of all of the actors, and director Bonnie Gabel excelled in ensuring that each member of the small cast is pulling their own weight — and have weight to pull. Standing out a bit from the group, Yiannopoulos and Vaught add the necessary levity with their physical style and well-executed wordplay. Bradford, by turn, is a gifted physical actor, commanding a presence even while playing a character who is debilitatingly drunk for most of the play. Hunter and Kuen are equally effective in setting the play's emotional tone.
The transportation of the audience from St. Claude to the place at the end of the river is completed by the set. Designer Adam Tourek deftly uses the space available to simultaneously put the audience in the center of the village, and create dimension. The outdoor staging presents a few elements that could be obstacles, but Gabel and Tourek chose to embraced them rather than ignore them. For instance, a circle of trees hugging the center of the stage area occasionally blocks the view of the action, but ends up playing to the viewer's very human desire to be an outsider looking in. The trees that extend back from the stage also offered the chance for a depth of field that truly allowed those external forces to creep, while sound and prop designers Eric Gremilion and Carlisle Roveto engineered plenty of delightful surprises with the action on the water. Meanwhile, the Selena Poznak-designed stage lighting and headlamps served to contort the space – and the actor's faces – into a shape that separates the play from reality.
In some cases, the fictional world of the production seemed to fit right into Bywater reality. Outside the Truck Farm, St. Claude Saturday night didn't slow down, with its usual menu of police sirens, train whistles and music from cars parked on the neutral ground. But with the play's end-of-days vibe and composer William Bowling's appropriately droning, plaintive music, the noise seemed to fit right in.
The production is walking a thin rope with the laissez faire approach. A particularly loud outside noise or a more meddlesome Truck Farm cat could easily get in the way of the performance. But, like the characters in the play, circumstances have yolked their existence to forces they cannot control. In both cases, the results are well worth the toil necessary to carry on.
Possum Kingdom runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 8 p.m. from Oct. 20-Nov. 10 at the St. Claude Truck Farm (3020 St. Claude Ave.). Opening weekend performances are $10, while the rest of the shows are $15. Ticket info may be found here.