Review of Public Domain

The Redundant Theatre Company Theatre breaks their own mold with their newest show, Public Domain*, moving away from their usual structure of thematically linked short plays and boldly debut an original full-length work. This work was collaboratively built from research about Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian immigrant anarchists convicted of a double murder in the Boston area in 1920. The Redundants are stretching themselves to new limits, bringing their audience along into fresh—and sometimes uncomfortable—territory.

The show relies on a non-traditional patchwork structure that is communicated in the form of chapters, dictated by a voice announcer warbling from an onstage phonograph. The first couple of sections take a bit of time to set the rhythm, but by Chapter 4, the show has gained enough speed and aesthetic clarity to draw the audience into what is largely a thrilling and fascinating ride. 

Many of the chapters have the tonal quality and attitude of a circus sideshow or vaudeville, which gives the performers a wide range of creative options in terms of how to explore the themes and nuances of Sacco and Vanzetti’s story.

The play really gains steam in a particular section where Sacco, played by Rain Newcomb (all roles were juggled by the four actors throughout the show) is being coerced into taking part in a litany of Italian jokes by an enthusiastic, charming and ultimately sinister host, played by Willie Repoley. What begins as seemingly good-natured teasing evolves into something much more difficult to handle, and causes the audience to have a very challenging experience, as their laughter and applause fades into awkward smiles and discomfort. 

The parallels between the current atmosphere in the United States for Mexican-American immigrants and the attitude about Italian-American immigrants in the early 20th century is chilling, and the performers bring the audience into the depths of our history to get a better look at our present, with stunning results.

Other segments worthy of note include a brilliant turn by Rebecca Morris as Pinnochio, a choreographed dance number on yoga balls depicting the difficulty of finding an impartial jury and a “dramatic re-enactment” performed with large cardboard cutouts and mugging that was simply hysterical. The creativity and exuberance demonstrated by this company during the show was remarkable, and certainly is a milepost in their evolution and the tide of experimental new work in Asheville. However, the content of the show is ultimately unfunny stuff, and the final third of the show began to droop in pace under the serious weight of Sacco and Vanzetti’s inevitable end. 

A particular segment at the end of the show falls flat in its attempt to hammer home the intensity of the length of time Sacco and Vanzetti were imprisoned and awaiting the results of their trial. Without specifying what the actors do, to avoid spoiling the show’s reveal, part of the difficulty with the section is the lack of an intermission in what is essentially a full-length play, notification of which is not included in the program. Also, the actors announced their intention before the segment began, letting the audience know what they were in for, rather than allowing the understanding of the experience to slowly dawn on them, which would have had a much more powerful effect.

All the Redundant core members are strong performers, but Repoley and Morris in particular shine during the show. Repoley has one of the most riveting stage presences in town, and Morris has an unflappable energy which she dedicates to great physicalization no matter which role she inhabits, and a surprising singing voice to boot. The addition of two young girls in white dresses as supplemental announcers was a nice touch, and lent a bit of historical imagery to the production. The show appears to be designed and directed mostly by the Redundants, with some directorial assistance by James Ostholthoff, and credit for the enormous undertaking by the four core company members must be given.

The Redundant Theatre Company Theatre is pushing their boundaries as well as the boundaries of their audience, and of new theatre in Asheville. Don’t miss this largely successful show if you want to be challenged, educated, and ultimately moved.

Public Domain* , presented by The Redundant Theatre Company Theatre, at N.C. Stage Company, part of the Catalyst Series. Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., through June 26. $15. www.ncstage.org

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2 thoughts on “Review of Public Domain

  1. zomBgrl

    Yeah, there are a couple of scenes in this show that land like a buttermilk pancake, in my opinion because they try way too hard to be sincere and thought-provoking, but overall the show is a fantastic romp. I don’t know of any Asheville theatre company doing new work that’s as creative and interesting as TRTCT. Did anyone see their last Catalyst Show, “700 Stories of Love”? This one’s in the same vein and just as good.

  2. Jamie Shell

    I think this review captures well both the strengths and the weaknesses of this show. The strengths are very strong, and I feel that that a lot of the weakness comes, in part, from what zomBgrl puts forth as maybe trying a little too hard, and from a — dare I say — redundancy in some of the points. For example, I think that the “olive face” scene more than suffices in bringing the uncomfortable laughter changing into just plain uncomfortable feeling home, and it is therefore unnecessary to have both that scene and the Italian joke sequence from the beginning of the show. (For my money, I thought the minstrel scene worked much better. In the joke scene, I didn’t experience what I think was the intended emotional arc, maybe because I just didn’t find the initial jokes that funny and had heard most of them before.) I thought the “The Government Requires So Much Paperwork” gag also could be trimmed, mainly because I think that gag is way played out and wasn’t really a fresh commentary.

    All that said, I concur with Lucia fully regarding her paragraph beginning “Other segments worthy of note…” and will be interested to see how this show may evolve down the line if they continue to work and rework it. I didn’t so much love the last RTCT show that I saw (“Independence Play” a few years ago) so it is particularly exciting for me to see the calibre of writing and production heightening.

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