Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Brave ‘New World’

Open Circle takes a provocative look at Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle at Round House’s Black Box Theatre in Silver Spring

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Charles E. Shoemaker/The Gazette
Debra Buonaccorsi sings and signs in her role as the Female Soldier in Open Circle Theatre’s production of ‘‘Songs For a New World.”
It’s a very small room, the Round House Black Box Theatre in Silver Spring, so let’s first of all deal with the elephant.

Open Circle Theatre, the company that is staging Artistic Director Suzanne Richard’s original adaptation of Tony winner Jason Robert Brown’s ‘‘Songs for a New World,” is made up of performers with and without disabilities. Some are deaf, some are not; some are in wheelchairs, some are not; some have developmental disabilities, some do not. It has been said that makes Open Circle unique; in fact, it makes the company real, even ordinary.

‘‘In a perfect world,” says actor Rob McQuay, ‘‘We’d go and audition and we’re seen — viable — and considered for roles.

‘‘I wish we didn’t have to focus on the ‘disabled’ thing — but on the other hand, every role I’ve had in 17 years, my disability has brought something to that role. It can be a deeper, richer character because of that aspect.”

And that matters, because ultimately, it’s people with disabilities taking control about how they, and others like them, are viewed.

‘‘When people see someone who’s in a wheelchair, or who’s signing, often we get pity,” says actor-dancer-musician Warren ‘‘Wawa” Snipe. ‘‘That’s ridiculous! I think what Open Circle is doing is working to break down the barriers.”

That may well be true, but here’s the thing: Open Circle does more than break down barriers. It makes compelling, imaginative theater that’s as satisfying as it is envelope pushing. Disability doesn’t define people, and nowhere is that more obvious than on the Open Circle stage, where talent casts a shadow that makes disability hard to notice.

About nothing

In the same way that ‘‘Seinfeld” was a sitcom about nothing, ‘‘Songs for a New World” is a musical about nothing: 17 songs that are linked loosely (if at all) but refer back, always, to the central themes of love, loss, loneliness, opportunity and regret.

It’s meant as a song cycle to be staged simply and performed by four people, and Brown, its creator, is a stickler for that. ‘‘Songs for a New World” gets performed all over the world — without gimmick, without concept, without reinterpretation.

Which is where Richard comes in.

‘‘I had proposed the show to Jason Robert Brown,” the director says, ‘‘ and he said no: ‘No, no, no.’

‘‘He’s very particular about how his music is done. Usually, he gets involved.”

Which is how Richard was put in contact in the first place. Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of Signature Theatre, introduced them in May when Signature staged ‘‘Songs for a New World” at the Music Center at Strathmore.

‘‘I wrote it up in a very lengthy story, with the songs where they would be,” says Richard. And when she presented the reconfigured ‘‘Songs for a New World” in detail to Brown, he liked it.

‘‘Either that,” laughs Richard, ‘‘Or he thought ‘Good God! Make this woman stop e-mailing me!’”

Apolitical

What Richard — irresistible force to Brown’s immovable object — envisioned was an adaptation of ‘‘Songs for a New World” that told the stories of soldiers in Iraq.

‘‘I had seen ‘Songs for a New World’ and I loved the music,” she says. ‘‘And I was thinking about the soldiers at Walter Reed.”

So she started working on a series of ersatz storyboards: ‘‘I wrote all the songs out on a chart, and what they were about,” she says. ‘‘I wrote on little strips, then I had to re-imagine the songs and rearrange the little strips of paper.”

What took shape was a song-story that examines the definitive political issue of our time.

‘‘I tried to stay apolitical,” says the director. ‘‘I wanted to make a soldier who wanted to come to the show feel comfortable.”

Indeed, Richard’s anger and frustration stem less from the war itself than from the unwillingness of most Americans to even acknowledge it.

‘‘I’m tired of nobody wanting to talk about the fact that there are soldiers ‘over there’ in the war,” she exclaims. ‘‘A few people have come to the show and said, ‘I’m kind of mad at you: I didn’t want to think about this.’”

In her own family, Richard says, the chasm has run particularly deep. She and her brother, just retired from the Air Force, ‘‘had to put a moratorium on talking about the war” after a Thanksgiving dinner discussion ended in tears and recrimination.

‘‘We’ve always been on different sides of the political fence,” she says, ‘‘but it was rational, reasonable.

‘‘This was different.”

Hair and harmony

In the same way people argue about which version of a favorite book-turned-movie they prefer, ‘‘Songs For a New World”-ophiles could compare and contrast Open Circle’s production to Signature Theatre’s production, or to the show’s original off-Broadway run at the WPA Theater in 1995 — or wherever they first encountered the show.

‘‘Anytime you place a concept on a piece you’re in danger,” says McQuay, who plays The Radical. ‘‘I think there’s just mixed feelings about this.”

Debra Buonaccorsi, who signs and sings as she plays the Female Soldier, agrees.

‘‘It surprises a lot of people,” she says. ‘‘They come in expecting to see four people.”

What they see is a cast of two dozen actors, singing, signing, shadowing — using the performing arts equivalent of mixed media to create a living, moving collage.

‘‘The reason we were able to create this,” says Buonaccorsi, ‘‘is that the lyrics are full of these scenes that are universal: love, loss, frustration.”

Which brings us to Snipe.

‘‘Him cutting his hair,” says Richard. ‘‘That was intense.”

Well, yes — because anyone familiar with Snipe’s career knows he sports a long, swinging, image-defining coif.

‘‘Oooh, that was extremely hard for me — trust me,” says Snipe. ‘‘I had my dreadlocks for seven years.”

Snipe, speaking over a video relay phone (‘‘It’s like being in ‘Star Trek,’” he laughs), has a comic actor’s timing when he relates the fallout from his haircut. His wife was unimpressed — ‘‘She said, ‘You look just like your grandfather,’ then went back to sleep” — and his 2-year-old son was mildly curious.

‘‘He’s used to it now, but I’m not. I still scare myself when I look in the mirror!

But to effectively play a soldier, ‘‘I realized I had to make it as real as possible,” he says. ‘‘I told the director: ‘You owe me big time!’”

Full circle

And she does, because Snipe’s GI haircut (plus his research on how to look and act like a soldier) makes him the show’s focal point.

‘‘To actually put on that uniform is a huge honor,” he says. ‘‘When you are wearing that uniform, you give it respect.”

Snipe has been an actor for 20 years now, but mentions that after high school, he thought about joining the Air Force.

‘‘Because I’m deaf, they turned me down,” he says. ‘‘That was a disappointment.”

Which brings it all back to the elephant in the room: Should Open Circle’s inclusion of actors with disabilities be in the spotlight, or just part of the background?

‘‘Suzanne has made a statement with which I wholeheartedly agree,” says McQuay, who admits that as a conservative, he and the director don’t always see eye to eye. ‘‘Part of our mission is to make Open Circle Theatre — its mission — obsolete.”

Not that he doesn’t want the work. But ‘‘I’d like to get to the point where, every year, Open Circle isn’t featuring Rob McQuay. I’d like to be working at the Shakespeare Theatre, while another disabled actor is at Open Circle.”

He’d also like people to understand that there’s more to Open Circle than a quota of cast members in wheelchairs.

‘‘What Open Circle is doing in terms of theater is pretty innovative and exciting anyway,” he says. ‘‘I don’t see other theaters getting to the point where they’re integrating shadow sign and caption. We’re innovative, cutting edge, in that.”

He’d like to see more innovation — in terms of getting acting classes, movement training and auditioning workshops in place for disabled actors. And he’d like Open Circle to stage more than one performance a year. He wants the troupe to be on a level with Wooly Mammoth, Arena Stage and Round House. So does Snipe.

‘‘I’ve gotten a strong positive response, and a mixed response, too,” he says. ‘‘People bawling, crying at the end of the show.

‘‘My only disappointment is that it’s not in a bigger theater so more people would see it.

‘‘That,” he says. ‘‘Would give equal access.”

‘‘Songs For a New World” runs through Aug. 26 at Round House Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. All performances will be sign interpreted⁄captioned, assisted listening and audio described on demand. Tickets are $15 for Thursday and Sunday shows, $25 for Friday and $30 for Saturday. There is a $5 discount for students, seniors and groups of 10 or more, and two-for-one pricing with a military ID for all shows.