“Let’s put on a play.”
I smile every time I think about someone saying those words. You need only an empty space on which to gather, clear sight lines for the audience and actors willing to memorize their lines. If the performers have energy and conviction, you’re more than halfway home.
Often, “Let’s put on a play” leads to the next logical sentence: “Let’s start a theater company!” I thought of that kind of innocent enthusiasm Wednesday night at Warehouse Performing Arts Center, as I watched the regional premiere of a one-hour one-act by the Avant Guardians. (I like that name.)
Mike Bartlett’s “Bull” is a quick, cutting comedy – the type that generates uncomfortable laughter – set in an office where one of three employees will be culled by a visiting manager. Dapper Tony (Claude Eghan) and self-possessed Isobel (Christine Noah) will almost certainly survive the visit by their blunt-spoken supervisor (Neil Rada). Thomas (Kenny Petroski), whose body language suggests he has spent weeks covering up under co-workers’ verbal abuse, has “carrion” written all over him.
The play snaps along on a single set furnished only with movable modular boxes, office chairs on wheels and a few props. A single abstract panel hangs on the wall, as disquieting in its way as the words that hang in the air. And theater comes alive.
The founders of the Avant Guardians, all recent Davidson College graduates, are in their 20s. Noah and director Quincy Newkirk made a name for themselves at Davidson in 2013 by co-writing “Spark Source,” an interactive play where the audience got a password to join the play’s closed social media network.
So they’re filled with the drive new converts to the power of theater always have. And like most new converts, their zeal carries over to the audience. Despite having to bring Eghan to the cast as a late replacement, they carry “Bull” off. (In fact, his Ghanian accent adds something; Tony becomes an exotic outsider Thomas can’t hope to fathom, just as Isobel’s female allure leaves him confounded.)
Small theater groups have appeared all over the county in recent years: Appalachian Creative Theatre, PaperHouse, Quixotic Theatre, Three Bone Theatre and others. They operate on shoestring budgets, and the “Chorus Line” song “What I Did for Love” could be the anthem of all of them.
Mecklenburg County has plenty of mainstream culture – too much, in fact, if you think about the variety of shows and concerts a place with a million people ought to get. So when groups take us out of our comfort zones, they do us a service. I welcome the Avant Guardians and all their cultural kin.