By Skylar Fox and Simon Henriques; Directed by Skylar Fox
Produced by Nightdrive Productions
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 1.29.17
The Tank, 151 West 46th Street
by Taylor Black on 1.21.17
Chloe Ivanson, Ava Langford, Zina Ellis, Danielle Guido and Simon Henriques in Providence, RI.
Photo by Christopher Annas-Lee.
BOTTOM LINE: Hometowns are weird and beautiful. This is a weird, beautiful show about a hometown.
Many of us have complicated feelings about our hometown—its history, people, and legacy are strange and yet built into our bones. In Providence, RI, Nightdrive Productions takes that messy feeling and lays it all bare. This show, like all our towns, is beautifully complex and hard to explain, but some central points emerge. So there’s this town. In this case, this town is Providence, Rhode Island, and the cast begins with an elaborate spike-tape mapping exercise, laying out the river, describing major landmarks, and arguing over the town's history in the way of locals who know a little too much about their home. Providence-aware audience members add a couple contributions, and the map gradually evolves into the lives of Providence’s citizens.
Mixing historical background scenes with contemporary vignettes, the central plot revolves around the 100th anniversary of “something very sad that happened once,” a nebulous tragedy known as the Dog Park Massacre. The memorial festival is a culminating point for the town, and we experience the lead-up and the event as told by several radio hosts, a few families, a lot of narration, some scientists, a squirrel, a dog, and in particular an insomniac named Sam whose family history is deeply tied to the town. Sam, who is variously played by all cast members, can’t shake the feeling that something in Providence is deeply wrong, and falls down the rabbit hole when trying to find the center of the mystery.
Time and narrative are central, and troubled, themes in Providence, RI. Repetition and alternate versions of events frequently appear, and the linear narrative is often superseded by the gradual stitching together of connections between the vignettes. As an audience member, the ultimate delight of this show is gradually discovering how it’s all connected. The show is richly thought-out and incredibly complex, and following the threads is deeply enjoyable. Providence, RI is extremely smart, funny, sincere, and creepy, with something for everyone. Fans of Twin Peaks or Welcome to Night Vale will feel especially at home with the feeling that something is just “off” about this town, but anyone who enjoys an emotional roller-coaster and a mental workout will find it well worth their time.
Audience participation is a major part of Providence, RI, facilitated by the issuing of name tags to every audience member. The show begins with a discussion of hometowns and experiences of Providence, and audience members are asked to vote on whether or not to keep cell phones on (I was proud of the opening night house which voted overwhelmingly to ban them). Cast members frequently call on audience members for opinions, assistance, and walk-on roles, and viewers are even asked to give up their names on occasion. Audience participation can often be gimmicky, but Providence, RI uses it sincerely and in a way that makes it absolutely vital to the show, serving to create community in the style of a small-town meeting house. It is rare that theatre succeeds in connecting strangers, but this company uses participation expertly, building connections, maneuvering bodies, and even holding an intermission pancake brunch to build a small-town warm fuzziness.
The cast and crew bring together an almost extra-sensory tapestry. The cast clips through live set changes, overlapping narration and semi-linear scenes with expert precision, and the timing is spot on. The show is expertly paced and evidences excellent attention to detail, often using subtle gestures to subtly connect threads briefly mentioned many scenes earlier. The stage design feels like walking onto the set of Parks and Recreation or a church basement, and every detail matters. This is a beautiful production by a remarkably young company, and makes it clear that Nightdrive Productions is definitely one to watch.
(Providence, RI plays at The Tank, 151 West 46th Street, through January 29, 2017. The running time is 2 hours 45 minutes with two intermissions. Performances are Thursdays through Sundays at 7, with an additional matinee Sunday Jan 29 at 3. Tickets are $15-20 and are available at thetanknyc.org. For more information visit nightdrive.org.)
Providence, RI is by Skylar Fox and Simon Henriques. Directed by Skylar Fox. Assistant director is Emily Garrison. Executive Produced by Jenny Gorelick, co-produced by Alexander Donnelly and Fortress Productions. Set Design is by Skylar Fox. Lighting Design is by Christopher Annas-Lee. Costume Design is by Corina Chase. Tech directed by Adam Wyron. Sound Design is by Alex Ostroff. Music Directed by Simon Henriques. Stage Manager is Isaac VanCuren. PAs are Anh Vo, Lucie Fleming, and Jaime Terrazzino.
The cast is Zina Ellis, Danielle Guido, Simon Henriques, Chloe Ivanson, and Ava Langford.