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July 18, 2012

With Beertown, The Washington DC-based ensemble theatre company Dog & Pony has created a theatrical universe that is so compelling and inclusive that one barely notices two and a half hours go by.

The piece, which premiered in the DC area last November, is now playing at the Capital Fringe and was developed through a devised process by the 17-member company, has a gimmicky premise. But don't be fooled.

The basic format of Beertown,  which is named after an imaginary American city that, like many others of its kind, has seen better days, is a town hall meeting. The audience members all don name badges upon arrival and instantly become citizens of Beertown ("Beertonians"). We discover that every five years, the people unearth a time capsule in which they place 13 keepsakes that have some kind of historical, emotional, artistic or other intrinsic value in terms of propagating the cultural memory of the city.

During the meeting, which we learn has happened 20 times in the town's history at five-year intervals, the citizens of Beertown get to propose new items to be added to the time capsule, vote whether to add any of these items to the cache, and vote items out. The ritualistic event includes a collective singing of the Beertown hymn, detailed voting instructions and reenactments of key scenes from Beertown's history.

The production is beautifully pitched -- the actors create characters that are larger than life and yet subtle and real enough not to be far-fetched caricatures. And the scenario rings so true --  there are "dying" places like Beertown, where local businesses are shutting and citizens left long ago, all over the United States.

As a result, we find ourselves very quickly adopting the mantle of proud Beertonians without even trying. One of the delights of the show is seeing the funny side of these small town rituals. It's easy to giggle and the cast offers us plenty of opportunities to let off steam.

But we also find ourselves completely drawn in. Last night, by the time we got around to voting for whether a piece of the defunct local bar, a block of wood graffiti-ed with the names of local boys who went off to Vietnam and never came home, should make it into the capsule, I cared deeply about Beertown's legacy. I felt like my life depended upon the inclusion of this item in the time capsule.

More than that, Beertown presents a fascinating exploration of the collective conscience, the democratic process and how individuals and communities grow and shrink and mark time together.

I don't think I have had such a satisfying experience at the theatre since War Horse at the National in London several years ago. This one is going on my list of top ten theatre experiences of all time. I'm not kidding. See it.


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