In the belly of the beast

Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros — originally written as a parable of individual resistance to the Nazi occupation of France — endures today as a cautionary tale for anyone trying to sort out his or her own place in the technological morass of the 21st century. The setting is an Asheville-like small city that’s swamped by a pestilence of “rhinoceritis.” Left and right, folks are turning into the beasts — yet nobody (save the play’s hero) seems much to care.

True to its iconoclastic tradition of re-inventing the theater experience, Asheville’s Plaeides Productions marks the new century with this classic absurdist work.

With its avant-garde staging, innovative effects and singular vocal stylings, the play continues the troupe’s creative mission to “challenge the boundaries of fantasy and realism.” It’s a bracing approach to theater, which has become this explosive young company’s hallmark.

Risk and challenge were the bywords when Plaeides Productions (then Painless Productions) chose Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock as its first project, tackling the dramatic ferment of Irish family life with rare aplomb. Plunging headlong into the pantheon of great American drama, they then explored Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness, an homage to 19th-century American social dynamics.

Another fearless performance opened the 1998-’99 season, in the form of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author — a transformational work that in some ways, characterizes the troupe’s own persistent path of self-discovery. Developed improvisionally and adapted to fit the emotional landscape of the late 1990s, Plaeides’ version brought the dramatic experience almost literally into theatergoers’ laps.

“Everything we do is high art,” says Producer Nick Lawrence, justifying the company’s often-controversial choices. “Our job is to maintain that [artistic] integrity,” he continues. Whatever form a dramatic interpretation takes, its ultimate goal should be to honor the playwright’s unspoken trust, he believes.

“Everyone brings something special to the experience,” he observes, referring to the intimate core company, which includes such die-hard theater enthusiasts as actor/Principal Director Steve Livingston; actor/Producer Nick Lawrence; actor/Technical Director Lars Clark; Sound Designer Amber Hawkins; actor/Marketing Director Valerie Hixon-Swain; and prop and costume mavens Robin Bee and Susan Sertain.

“We all have full-time jobs [apart from Plaeides],” he notes. “But we all do this because we love it.”

Like moths to a porch lamp, a regular stream of actors from WNC’s busy theatrical community is drawn to Plaeides’ stage door. But, in keeping with the troupe’s commitment to grassroots democracy, auditions are open to anyone with a yen for the spotlight.

“It seems that you always have two or three people who come in and blow your doors off,” notes Lawrence about this spate of newcomers.

Such is the case with Rhinoceros. Take former Charlotte resident Thomas Bennett, who followed friends to Asheville and sought a new life in the mountains. Within weeks, he’d found Plaeides, Rhinoceros and Berenger, the play’s philosophical male lead (a character not unlike himself, he says).

Another principal player — and fresh face both to Plaeides and the Asheville theater scene in general — is Thizbea Turton, a veteran of Haywood Arts Repertory Theatre. Turton plays Daisy, offering a masterful rendering of Ionesco’s manipulative femme fatale.

Supporting players include past Plaeides veterans and several other newcomers — among them David Kenworthy, Anna Boersma, Leslie Williams, Josh Rubin, Forrest Ball, Melissa McKee, Ben Puckett, Amanda Levesque, Justin Humphries and Sam Humphries.

This small company makes for a close union of creative souls — an organic symbiosis that transforms theater into experience. Lawrence likens the whole process to nothing short of epiphany: “Theater,” he effuses, “is alive. … [It’s] the most incredible form of human expression.”

In an effort to bring that visceral sense of the moment to the masses, every Plaeides production is marked by audience involvement. By removing that invisible “fourth wall,” the action can occur in the very midst of the crowd. For Plaeides, this dynamic staging is integral to the play’s evolution. In this “theater of the mind,” props, costumes and sets are secondary — minimalist accouterments that help the actors flesh out the color and meaning of the script.

Theater should have impact on the community, Lawrence believes. To that end, the troupe regularly carries its message to the classroom, offering Buncombe County high-school drama classes a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of professional theater.

The name “Plaeides” was taken from a Native American version of a Greek myth, wherein seven children take a wrong turn on a walk and become lost forever. In the past three years, the individuals involved in this namesake company have been traveling an amazingly creative path in search of their own way home.

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