Taken by themselves, the words "experimental," "New York," "theatre," and "collective" are innocuous enough. Strung together in a sentence, however, they have a tendency, through no fault of their own, to make people nervous, particularly around Spoleto season in Charleston. Spoletians are an open-minded lot, predisposed to the unconventional. But to some, "experimental" suggests guinea pigs in a medical lab. For anyone wondering, the Foundry Theatre's Major Bang: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dirty Bomb is no longer an experiment. Or if it is, it's an awfully successful one.
A peripatetic production company based in and around Brooklyn, the Foundry is in fact a communal experimental theatre. And they have an admitted weakness for provocative works like Major Bang, a political satirical comedy that premiered at St. Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn in January 2006. But the rhetorical and procedural formula they use to cook up their unique style of theatre seems to work well. The show's received raves from every quarter for its whip-smart theatricality, its mix of narrative and presentational styles, its ability to tackle a subject as daunting as terrorism and post-9/11 security and be entertaining and thoughtful without being flippant, and its deft blend of acting, multimedia, and, er, magic.
It's all the more remarkable given that the Foundry has neither an established home space nor a formal repertory company of actors. Producing artistic director Melanie Joseph dreamed up the idea for the Foundry in 1994 as "a community of artists with revolutionary ideas for the theatre," a group dedicated to developing idea-driven plays from artists interested in working collaboratively. For Major Bang, Joseph gathered together artists from three diverse companies — Big Dance Theater (a 2004 Spoleto participant), the Rude Mechanicals, and Radiohole — to pool their resources and talents for a show with its roots on her idea for a play that could be to the Age of Terror what Stanley Kubrick's classic 1963 satire Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was to the Cold War.
Major Bang director Paul Lazar — whose resumé includes co-artistic director of Big Dance Theater and plenty of acting roles on stage and in film (among them Silence of the Lambs and 2004's The Manchurian Candidate) — was, in typical Foundry fashion, involved in the creation of Major Bang nearly from the beginning.
"The Foundry doesn't have a home," he says, "or the home is inside Melanie Joseph's head. The way she works is she thinks about ideas and themes and subject matter that interest her, and then she pulls in different people to collaborate in a way and makes the work up as part of an ongoing conversation about life and politics and the world." Major Bang, Lazar says, is a perfect example of that process.
The show stars actress Maggie Hoffman, of performance art group Radiohole, and Steve Cuiffo, an accomplished actor and also a professional magician who's served as a technical consultant on David Blaine's television magic specials. The collaborative effort on Major Bang started with the germ of an idea and continued all the way up to opening night, Lazar says.
"Melanie had worked with [writer] Kirk Lynn before, and she knew he was the right person to think about it not just politically but also comically, and not in a strident way. And Steve Cuiffo is a remarkably gifted magician and actor who'd always wanted to incorporate his skills as a magician into a piece of theatre. She put them in a room and let them cook on it for a while. They came up with a draft, which was very strongly influenced by Dr. Strangelove," the director recalls. "They brought me in at the rough draft stage. Kirk continued to write and rewrite throughout the rehearsal process, all the way up to the opening."
The play, Lazar says, is part suspense thriller, part magic act, part tongue-in-cheek instructional seminar on dealing with radiation, all loosely bound together by a mostly true narrative.
"There's a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end that is told throughout — a light and thin story in one sense, based on a real kid who, attempting to get a Merit Badge in the Boy Scouts, built a breeder reactor in his family's basement," Lazar laughs. "That narrative is broken up by interludes and digressions," he says.
"It's not a non-narrative piece. It's a blend of narrative and contemplative and it's very entertaining without being didactic," Lazar says, struggling to find a way to describe the show in simple terms. "It's really funny and really provocative. It makes audiences contemplate our current moment, you might say," he continues. "So we sort of skirt along the edge of insanity."
Major Bang • Spoleto Festival USA • $30 • (1 hour 15 min.) • May 31 at 8 p.m.; June 2 at 9 p.m.; June 3 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. • Emmett Robinson Theatre, Simons Center for the Arts, 54 St. Philip St. • 579-3100