When San Diego Repertory Theatre’s co-founder and Artistic Director Sam Woodhouse and writer Herbert Siguenza (San Diego Rep’s Playwright In Residence) work together, they’re not afraid to take risks. In 2014, they premiered the dystopian spectacle El Henry, presented by the La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls program and the San Diego Rep, at the outdoor public space SILO in Makers Quarter.
Woodhouse, Siguenza and writer Rachel Grossman’s latest comedy-drama, Beachtown, is equally ambitious.
Inspired by the play Beertown by dog & pony dc, the plot is set in the night of the 100th Anniversary Time Capsule Day Ceremony in Beachtown, a San Diego-like part of California. The primary reason for the ceremony is to go over the items inside the time capsule.
After the different artifacts are shared with the Beachtown citizens, they are asked to vote on removing one that no longer reflects the morals of the town. Following the removal of an artifact, proposals for a replacement object are then discussed by the residents.
Entertainment begins 30 minutes before showtime, and theatregoers who stop by can meet the optimistic and very Californian mayor Steve Novak (Jason Heil), conservative reporter Damon Haynes (Antonio T.J. Jonson) and the eager archivist Gloria Ramirez (Sandra Ruiz) at the Lyceum Theatres lobby and the Lyceum Space (Sean Fanning’s set is full of festive decorations). What’s fun about interacting with the performers is their commitment to the characters they play.
Heil, who looks the part owing to costume designer Anastasia Pautova’s clothing, and Johnson, in particular, are very spontaneous with their improvised acting styles.
Rounding out the cast are Ruiz, Lee Ann Kim, Salomon Maya, William BJ Robinson and Marci Anne Wuebben, who comically and sincerely display their devotion to Beachtown. Siguenza and Grossman’s world-building makes theatregoers feel like they are spending a night in a real-life environment.
Several stories about the residents and artifacts create a fictional detailed history about the community.
When tales about the early days of Beachtown are shared with the audience, Anne E. McMills’ lighting, Blake McCarty’s projections and Mark Spiro’s original music, performed by Robinson on piano, cleverly pay tribute to California culture and even to silent cinema.
As far as vocal audience participation goes, there are sing-alongs and an Ombudsperson who becomes involved with the action and the opportunity to vote on artifacts following the discussions. It’s really up to audience members to determine how involved they want to get with the debates about the artifacts that are the focus of the ceremony. On opening night, the items inspired engaging conversations about feminism, veterans, the LGBT community and other timely topics.
There’s a lot to take in with Beachtown and Woodhouse knows how to keep the pacing simultaneously loose and tight. One moment, you can lose yourself in the interaction, and in the next be moved by a personal memory that a longtime resident discusses with the other Beachtonians.
A scene that might take some people out of the experience is the “Spotlight on a Community Artist” that occurs after intermission. For the official opening performance, the PGK Dance Project did a song and dance combination to raise awareness about the arts events that Beachtown offers.
It’s nice to see other arts organizations get the chance to perform in Horton Plaza, but the placement of the mini performance comes at a random point of the night. Having other guest artists perform earlier before the first artifacts are introduced could actually help this sequence feel organic to the other events that occur.
For all the conflicting opinions that are shared, Beachtown is mainly about the power of community. That’s a good and positive message for such a divisive time in America.
Don’t be intimidated by the interactive aspects of Siguenza, Grossman and Woodhouse’s funny and creative world premiere. If anything, you might be inspired to treat others with more empathy.