When Keely Enright made the decision to move the Mt. Pleasant-based Village Repertory Co. across the Ravenel Bridge to downtown Charleston three years ago, the choice came with a lot of soul-searching. The Village Rep had been in Mt. Pleasant for 12 years. The building they were moving into, what is now the Woolfe Street Playhouse, was an old meat-packing warehouse that required extensive, and expensive, renovations.
"There was so much looking inward when we made the move," Enright says. "A lot of energy and focus and perspective, not to rebrand, but to make the vast changes of coming downtown, and taking on the vast monster that is the Woolfe Street Playhouse itself."
To say it was a huge risk is an understatement, but it's one that has paid off. And with the company embarking on its 15th anniversary season this August, Enright has been inspired to embrace even more changes — namely, building relationships with companies and artists outside Charleston. "I felt it was time to open more doors to the company," Enright says. "You never know when you step outside your comfort zone what cool thing may come from that."
The first cool thing to come from that happened in July with the premiere of the Village Rep-commissioned play The Transcendents by New York playwright Derek Ahonen. The second cool thing is happening right now: The Village Rep is hosting actor and director Noah Brody, founder of New York's highly acclaimed Fiasco Theatre, for a residency while he directs the play Lungs by British playwright Duncan MacMillan.
Lungs is a two-person, no-frills piece of theater that follows one couple's relationship through their conversations — specifically, their conversations about having a child. But these conversations are somewhat different from the ones you might expect a typical young couple to have. The woman is a Ph.D. student researching in some field related to environmental science, and through the course of her studies she's become acutely aware that the absolute worst thing a person can do for the environment is have a baby. "They're caught in this kind of paradox," Brody says. "What is the actual good and right decision to make? They're essentially good people, in the vein of the NPR-listening audience — they're progressive, they care about the environment — they care, but they're essentially narcissistic. They're kind of representative of many of us in the theater-going audience. They have the time, the education, and the money to put all their attention on worrying about these things, because they don't have to worry about earning their daily bread."
It's a very intimate show with no set or props. There are just two actors, talking with each other, for roughly an hour and 40 minutes. It sounds heavy, but Brody says that's not actually the case. "It's deeply enjoyable. They're a fun and funny couple, very ironic and sardonic, so there's a lot of wit and humor in dealing with these questions ... It's not a tragedy, and it's not a comedy. It's much more like life in which there are moments of tragedy and moments of hilarious laughter."
The kind of minimalist — in this case, almost nonexistent — staging that Lungs employs is something that appeals to Brody and his Fiasco company. This past January, they staged a unique production of Into the Woods that tossed out the lavish staging, abundant props, and full orchestra that are usually deemed necessary for the Sondheim musical. Their production received a rave review from the New York Times' Ben Brantley. In April, Fiasco presented a similarly stripped-down Two Gentlemen of Verona, to equally warm acclaim. "We tend to ask ourselves, 'What do we need to tell this story, and what do we only need?'" Brody says. "Anything we need to tell the story we give ourselves, but we try to only give ourselves those things, so that we place the action on the story and the language. We are not a company that thrives on spectacle."
Brody has been in Charleston since the beginning of August, rehearsing eight hours a day with his cast of two, Charleston-based actress Mary Fishburne and L.A.-based actor and College of Charleston grad Will Haden.
A project like this, with actors and directors coming in from around the country, is tough for a theater of Woolfe Street's size to tackle, but Enright is in it wholeheartedly. "I don't want to feel boxed in by the parameters of the community," she says. "This might not be financially the smartest thing we can do, but artistically, it's important. I want to see these kinds of things happening in my space."