Review: San Diego Rep’s ‘Beachtown’ an engaging stage for democracy
Be warned: Once you see “Beachtown,” it may forever ruin how you view run-of-the-mill municipal meetings — what with their distinct lack of entertaining politicians, fired-up citizens and free cookie buffets.
It might do a little of the same to your experience of conventional theater, too.
This ingeniously conceived San Diego Rep world premiere follows what might seem a simple (if somewhat nutty) conceit: Stage a fictional town meeting and let playgoers vote on what should go into, or be ousted from, the official time capsule of the made-up burg of Beachtown.
Well, why should we care, right? The politicians are actors (though good ones), the capsule is a prop, the objects going into it have no actual consequence.
Yet somewhere between the comically awkward skits put on by local officials as part of the once-a-decade capsule celebration, and the voting that tops the show’s first act, something remarkable happens: It all starts to matter.
And for good reason: The setup may be pretend, but the sentiments it stirs up most assuredly are not.
“Beachtown,” written by Rep resident playwright Herbert Siguenza with Rachel Grossman of dog and pony dc, very savvily makes sure of that, by introducing time-capsule items that come not only with their own detailed, often poignant histories but with connections to issues that are anything but imaginary.
Some more weighty than others. I’ll confess I found myself absolutely ready to throw down over the cultural symbolism of the ’70s-vintage surfboard fin: Don’t these people understand that while it’s the smallest part of the board, you’ll end up directionless without it? Get a democratic metaphor already!
Given the good-natured goofiness with which the show kicks off, the introduction of a teddy bear meant to memorialize a horrific mass shooting 30 years earlier seemed to strike a jarring tonal note at first.
But the kinds of passions that item and others wind up evoking — and the ruminations that follow on how a community wants to be represented and remembered — turn out to be exactly what make “Beachtown” meaningful and powerful. Not least because audience members are invited (though not required) to stand as “Beachtonians” and state their cases for favored objects.
Beachtown both is and isn’t San Diego, and much of the show’s fun springs from the off-kilter sense that we in the audience are — to borrow from that great expositor of democracy Walt Whitman — “both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.”
The show’s capable seven-member cast goes with the unpredictable flow deftly under Rep artistic chief Sam Woodhouse’s direction, shifting from the script into improv whenever events dictate.
One of my favorite moments from opening night — besides the preshow pot-luck dessert buffet — was when a playgoer stood up and prefaced his remarks by saying, “I love interactive theater.”
To which Jason Heil, who’s a boyishly appealing ball of energy as Beachtown’s surfin’ mayor and meeting emcee Steve Novak, replied with blithe innocence: “I don’t know what that means.”
Political clashes come courtesy of the fiery journalist Damon Haynes (played with sharp wit by the versatile San Diego acting veteran Antonio T.J. Johnson) and the feisty councilperson Benny Ramos-Leibowitz (a funny and excitable Salomon Maya). Those two conservatives face off against the more progressive-minded citizens Gloria Ramirez (Sandra Ruiz), Bob Ruby (William BJ Robinson) and Donna French (Marci Anne Wuebben), all well portrayed.
Lee Ann Kim, a real-life former TV journalist, is also a natural as the recent Beachtown returnee and town archivist Susan Suhiro, and Robinson doubles skillfully as the resident musician.
The one minor off-note to the show, inspired by dog and pony dc’s “Beertown,” is a comic skit early on that dabbles in what seem to be purposely retro and clunky (if playful) ethnic stereotypes — although to what end is not entirely clear.
Unfortunately, you can’t vote that moment out.
But unlike the rest of greater Beachtown, you also don’t have to wait another 10 years to experience this one-of-a-kind and, in its humble way, game-changing act of theater.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Some exceptions; check with theater.) Through April 15.
Where: San Diego Rep’s Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.
Tickets: $20-$65 (discounts available)
Phone: (619) 544-1000
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