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Theatre Review: "Beertown" at Know Theatre

I really like what Beertown, on stage at Know Theatre through March 19, wants to be – and often succeeds at being.

The conceit is that we aren’t an audience, we’re the townsfolk of Beertown, U.S.A, and we’re at the 20th Quinquennial (that’s every five years) Time Capsule Celebration, in which we get to pick what new items may go in and what others may come out.

We also bring desserts for the potluck social hour. I’m not kidding. So here’s a big shout-out to my pal David Lyman, who brought a plateful of Anzac biscuits, which he said are from WWI (not literally), made with Golden Syrup (he assured me the real deal is now available in the U.S.), would not offer an opinion on whether the biscuits could be found in the trenches of No Man’s Land (but must have brought comfort to the soldiers if they were) and which are very tasty.

But back to Beertown, where we are a big part of the act (if you hadn’t guessed from the dessert thing.) We take the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Time Capsule Oath, we sing the town song, all of it setting us up to engage in a conversation about what artifacts should be saved and what should not: A thick pile of pink slips which marked the end of the town’s principal employer? A jar of smoke from a devastating fire? (Guess how the vote went on that.)

The idea is to get us to think about where we live, and what we value and why.

There is a fair amount of voting, and an impassioned reminder to “have your vote count for something,” which is not a bad thing to be reminded of in a presidential election year.

Beertown is the creation of Washington, D.C. ensemble dog & pony dc, which Know regulars are familiar with from Cincinnati Fringe. Troupe leader Rachel Grossman directs. The line the company uses to describe the show is “Creating a community and revising its history nightly,” which is an admirable mission.

The show does change nightly, depending on what the audience wants to talk about. Opening night had an audience peppered with local theater folk who helped keep the debate going, but nothing caught fire. Every performance will have a lot to do with what the audience brings to it. (If they don’t bring much, the cast is prepared to do the heavy lifting.)

Talented Cincinnati actors Andrew Ian Adams, Michael Hall, Eileen Earnest (all members of OTR Improv), Mindy Heithaus, Sean Mette and Daryl Harris, faculty member of NKU’s School of the Arts, make up most of the cast. Earnest makes the most of her impressive comedic gift as the town archivist.

Harris plays the editor of the Beertown Bugle and in the guise of interviewing, asks audience members pointed questions intended to stir thoughts and memories. Don’t worry, nobody gets dragged on stage; you can participate or not from the comfort of your theater seat.

What doesn’t work: Beertown is l-o-n-g (two hour-long acts and an intermission) and doesn’t have enough good material to sustain it.

There are some pretty painful musical interludes and a fair number of vignettes that take us back to the origin of various artifacts, some OK, others not so much. There’s plenty of room to prune each act down to 45 minutes, and leave more time for good talk, if the evening is going that way.

Credit goes to the cast who give it their all – and rise above the show’s wince-y sections, which include pounding home feminist themes with a hammer. Much, much, much too much.

I have the feeling Over-the-Rhine-headquartered Know and dog and pony want Beertown to invite larger conversations about our own town’s issues, but it didn’t happen on opening night. When someone threw the ‘gentrification’ word toward the stage, nobody picked it up and ran with it.

For a really good time, grab a beer downstairs and bring it up to the – umm, meeting room, don’t forget the cookies and have a couple of local issues in your back pocket.

Beertown, March 2-19. Know Theatre. 1120 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $20; $10 rush seats 10 minutes before curtain when available (cash only). Free admission on select Wednesdays. 513-300-5669 and knowtheatre.com.

Reviewed by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts