Theatre Adventure: “Pure Prine” at the Phoenix Theatre

The answer is “yes.”  Yes, I saw the new Prine show at the Phoenix before it closed.  A lot of people have asked me that in the past week.

And yes, I loved it, too.  It was unlike any other show I had ever seen.

I am not going to write a regular review of it because I did not see it in the regular way.  However, if you will indulge me, I would like to share my experience of it:

 

Last Thursday night I drove to downtown Indianapolis to the Phoenix Theatre to see a world premiere performance (one of only seven) of “Pure Prine: The Music of John Prine,” conceived and directed by Bryan Fonseca.

I poked my head in the door, saw Bryan in the crowd of people in the lobby and asked him, “Is it sold out?”

“Um, yes,” Bryan said with suppressed glee.  “But don’t worry, we’ll get you in.”

“I am happy to watch from up in the light booth,” I offered.

And dear reader, that is just what I did!

So first I want to tell you about the light booth…

“Are you okay climbing the ship’s ladder?” Bryan asked me as he led me up the stairs at the back of the house.

“Yes,” I said, trying to Act As If and forget about the fear of heights that I had discovered only after I became a home owner and had to climb ladders to clear out gutters and investigate dripping noises in the attic.

“Okay,” said Bryan.  “Tell Lauren I said you could be up there.”

I slung my messenger bag securely over my shoulder, hoisted up my skirt with one hand, grabbed the metal railing as tightly as I could with my other hand, and pep-talked myself up that vertical wooden ladder into the dark little clubhouse above.

Lauren Batson, the light and sound operator for this show, was surprised to see me.

However, she quickly made me feel at home, offering me a choice of wheeled office chair or round, wooden stool and clearing a little space for me next to her table in front of the large, open window looking down on the stage.  If I stuck my head through the window, I could look down on the audience.  (eep!)

Every seat was filled.  I saw actor Chuck Goad and his partner.  I saw a bunch of people from the staff of the Indiana Repertory Theatre, including the IRT’s artistic director, Janet Allen, the IRT’s playwright-in-residence, James Still, and the IRT’s resident dramaturg, Richard Roberts.

“How cool is that!” I thought.

I looked up and saw that Lauren and I were at eye level with the horizontal poles of theatre lamps, only a smidge lower than the rafters.

It was all very fun.  And terrifying.

Gradually, though, I relaxed.  For one thing, I saw that Lauren travels with a book “just in case I get stuck waiting somewhere,” same as I do.  This was comforting just because.

For another thing, the floor of the small booth felt very solid and secure. 

And for another thing, when I stuck my head way out through the window and looked down, the people in the seats right below us did not seem all that far away.

After I settled down, I had a great time chatting with Lauren before the show and during intermission.  (I was sorry to miss a chance to buy one of Jessica’s yummy pub brownies in the lobby at intermission, but I thought it would be pushing my luck to climb down and up that steep ladder twice in one evening.)

I made sure to give Lauren my blog card first, before I let loose my inner Curiosity Girl.

Next I want to tell you about Lauren…

Lauren is a college student who is interning at the Phoenix while she works on her theatre degree.  I asked about her theatre experience so far and her career plans.

“I want to be a professional stage manager,” she said.*   “I have done some acting, but I really like managing.  You get to have fun and be a part of the group, but you also get to help everyone.  You keep things going.”

“It’s a lot of work,” I said.

“Yes, but I really enjoy being organized.  I make all these charts and lists and things.”

She said that she had run lights and sound for “Yankee Tavern,” too.  We both loved that show.  I saw it twice.  Lauren, of course, saw it many, many times. 

I said that I was glad for a chance to see the “Yankee Tavern” set again, even modified as it was for “Pure Prine.”  The jukebox had been moved to the opposite side of the stage, for example, and a piano brought in.  Lauren pointed out some of the subtle changes in the set dressing, too, which delighted me.

I asked how running lights and sound for “Pure Prine” differed from running them for “Yankee Tavern.”  Lauren said that the sound cues, especially, for “Yankee Tavern” had to be more precisely executed because they were so closely tied to the plot, but that she had to follow along in the script more carefully with “Pure Prine” because sometimes there was unexpected ad-libbing.   This difference surprised me at first but made sense after I thought about it.

I noticed out of the corner of my eye during the show that Lauren did follow along carefully in her script, using a tiny light clamped to the top of her equipment panel.   Laura Glover’s lighting design subtly highlighted each character’s entrance and then illuminated their changing relationships throughout the night.  Lauren executed Laura’s design smoothly and effectively.

At intermission, Lauren said that earlier that day she had been helping to paint the set for “Speech and Debate,” a new play by Stephen Karam that is getting its Indiana premiere at the Phoenix beginning this weekend.   She encouraged me to see that show, too, because based on what she has seen of rehearsals, it is going to be hilarious.

We also talked about some of the shows she has done at her school.   They mostly work with a black box theatre but there is exciting talk of adding a space with a proscenium stage before she graduates.   “We would have to load in and load out,” Lauren said, “But that would be okay.” 

I admired and, I confess, I envied Lauren’s easy familiarity with theatre language: phrases such as “proscenium stage” and “raked house” and “light hang” (i.e., the meeting at which people climb up on ladders and/or pull down the poles of lights to adjust them to fit a particular show.)  She may be an undergrad, but she already sounds and acts like a professional, in a very down-to-earth, unpretentious way.  It was a treat to hang out with her.

Okay, now I will try to tell you about the show…

It is hard to describe.

There are six people in a bar – a bartender, a barmaid, and four customers.  No one ever says a word of dialogue and yet through their powerful, original ways of singing John Prine songs and through their nonverbal interactions with each other, the audience gets to know the people and their relationships intimately.   We come to care about these people as we recognize ourselves in them.

Each song is a richly satisfying little story and/or comment about life in and of itself, but each person’s singing of each song also forms part of the larger story of what happens to these particular people in this particular evening in this particular bar.  A scarred but happily married couple (John and Loretta, played by Tim Grimm and Jan Lucas-Grimm) unfolds their happiness a bit to let the others – and us – enjoy and understand it, too, while another couple (Donald and Lydia, played by Michael Shelton and Bobbie Lancaster) breaks up messily.  A third couple (Johnny the bartender and Angel the barmaid, played by Tim Brickley and Jenni Gregory) is not really a couple at all except perhaps in Johnny’s wishful thinking. 

But “the three couples” is only one layer of the show and it does not begin to describe the depths of the individual personalities or the strength of the actor-singers who portray them, or the nuances of the storytelling that goes on underneath the words.

You can almost see the energy flowing through and around the stage as these six inter-related characters sing and move and form new alliances and change them again.  Someone leaves through one door to cry furiously in the restroom.  Someone else takes a framed photo down from the wall and hugs it to her chest.  Others go out through another door to put on “an illegal smile.”  The rhythm of the show is NOT a choppy “song, change, song, change, song, change” pattern but something much more integrated.

AND each person plays one or more musical instruments – the piano, for example, or a harmonica or a tiny percussion ball.  Or a banjo or a mandolin or one of several guitars.  The people play to accompany themselves but also each other.  The instrumental music provides yet another layer of conversation and relationships.

There is wit and talent and honest emotion in everything – from the lyrics to the instrumental music to the singing to the acting to the lovely visual of the blocking.  And since it is all LIVE, that adds another layer of power.   I grinned the whole time, except when I was tearing up.

Yup.  I loved this show.

I also appreciated that no one had assumed that I would already know the words to the songs.  I had not heard of John Prine before this show.  In the second act, when someone sang “Angel from Montgomery,” I thought, “Hey! I know that song!” but all of the others were new to me.  It was a pleasure to be able to hear and understand every word clearly.  I now love John Prine’s wordsmithing.

After the show

I waited until most of the audience had left before I climbed back down the ladder.  In the still-crowded lobby, Bryan told me that one of the things he loves about John Prine’s music is the wide range of emotions it conveys.   It resonates in so many ways.

“And…no judgments,” Bryan said. “‘We are who we are.’”

Yes.

“You should take this show on the road,” I said, without having any idea about what road that might be.

“Well, there is already talk of that,” Bryan said.  “We might also bring it back this fall.”

That would be great!  I would like to see and hear this show again.

A man I didn’t know came up to me as I was leaving the theatre and told me that he loves to read Indy Theatre Habit.  This made an already good night even better. 

My new friend Michael and I started chatting about “Pure Prine.”  He was a long-time John Prine fan.  He had enjoyed “Pure Prine,” too.  He said he wondered if the performers had had any emotional connections to the music before working on this show “because they sure do now!”

Tim Grimm walked by just then.  I nudged Michael. “Let’s ask him!”

Tim told us, “Yes, I definitely had a connection to the music before this show.  I grew up on John Prine.  His bass guitarist is my producer whenever I record.”  (I think that is what he said.)

“Well, it was as if you were channeling him tonight,” Michael said.

Box Office

“Pure Prine: The Music of John Prine” is over for now, but I’ll let you know if I hear anything about a second run. 

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

Follow @IndyTheatre on Twitter.com, too.

*I probably should not have any of Lauren’s words in quotes because I did not take any notes up there in the booth.  These are not direct quotes. They are, however, the gist of what she said to me, and I was in a mood to write dialogue today.

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