In one of several extraordinary moments in Thursday’s performance of Collective Consciousness Theatre’s Stories of a New America — a play being performed this weekend at Fair Haven’s Collective Consciousness Theater — all the members of the cast addressed the audience, talking about the moment of realization about being in a new place — because they “could hear the quiet — no bombs, no bullets, no shelling, no militia.”
It illustrated one extreme of the refugee experience, the type often overlooked in the vigorous debate surrounding current events. By choosing to focus the script on anecdotes and observations like this, the cast and company gave the full house a number of quiet moments, where rigorous political jargon could be forgotten for a moment to make space for empathy.
On Wednesday — the day before Long Wharf Theatre’s Feb. 16 opening of Napoli, Brooklyn — the year 1960 invaded the theater’s lobby. There was a rack of clothes straight from the era, a textile time warp amid the lobby’s sleek architecture. Two lamps. A chair. Against the far wall was a cart that had three phones in different colors, all with rotary dials and receivers with cords. Potted plants. A statue of the Virgin Mary.
Inside the theater, a dozen crew members in hard hats were putting the final touches on the set. A backdrop showed a row of brownstones. A huge sign hung from the ceiling that read “Duffy Meats.” Also suspended from the ceiling was a large circular stained-glass window, now off to stage right, but looking like it could be moved to the center any time. An old streetlamp hung over the stage like a sentinel. But for a play that switches scenes often, from an apartment to a butcher shop to a factory to a church, the stage itself was remarkably bare. There was a vintage stove and countertop. A bed with a nightstand. A table and chairs. A wooden door in its frame, on wheels, with no wall around it. It could all be moved, all be repurposed, and it was the culmination of months of planning, conversation, design, and construction.
Three metal rings were suspended from the ceiling of the theater. Three women in white robes began in front of them, in a small group; they tumbled, re-formed, became statues. Applause from Saturday night’s full house at ECA’s theater on Audubon Street. Then the women each took a ring and spun in them aloft, dancing in the air. More applause. The woman in the middle descended from her ring and hit the floor.
She turned out to be a contortionist, folding herself in half, into a ring herself.
Even more applause. Then the lights went out. There was a quick scene change, and Sherlock Holmes hit the stage.
Only Athens two and a half millennia ago bears comparison for concentrated theatric genius to Renaissance London. Shakespeare outshines his circle, but even without him that constellation — Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Webster, Thomas Middleton, Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher, and the rest — accounts for the better part of great plays written by Englishmen.
Grimmest of that sanguinary group was the dramatist captured in one telling couplet:
Deep in a dump alone John Ford was gat, With folded arms and melancholy hat.
The first time Rachel Alderman stepped into a recording booth, took a deep breath, and thought about how the telephone had influenced her life, she worried that she might not have enough to say. She ended up having plenty of stories to record. And luckily, there are plenty of New Haveners to jump on the mic with her.
The first time Imogen asks William Shakespeare to write her into Much Ado About Nothing, it isn’t clear if he knows exactly what she means. A hot, nearly-white light falls around her shoulders, highlighting a spray of red hair and two dark, unmoored eyes that sprout from her skull. He laughs, shrugs his shoulders, slouches anew over his parchment, and lifts his quill.
There’s a pantomime routine at the beginning of Endgame, the Samuel Beckett dramatic masterpiece now playing at the Long Wharf Theatre until Feb. 5, in which a man named Clov — who is physically unable to sit down — checks the state of affairs outside the two high windows in the back of the single room where the play takes place. He needs a ladder to be able to see out the windows. He places the ladder under one of the windows, climbs the ladder with difficulty, checks outside, gets down, starts walking to the next window. Turns and sighs. He has forgotten to bring the ladder with him. He gets the ladder, places it beneath the next window, climbs it with difficulty, checks outside again, gets down. Starts walking away. Turns and sighs, louder. He has forgotten the ladder again.
The fluorescent overhead lights were still on in Collective Consciousness Theater, in Erector Square. Actor Terrence Riggins was seated at a desk on the set for The Mountaintop. Fellow actor Malia West was standing in front of him. Neither of them were in costume yet, and West had a decidedly anachronistic plastic water in her hand. But as soon as Riggins and West fell into character, running through a scene late in the play, their voices changed, taking on a stronger Southern accent. Their body language shifted. They became the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Camae, a maid at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. It was 1968, and it was King’s last night on earth, and in The Mountaintop, he was working on a speech.