Beyond the Barricade and What I Found There

Check out this video of the cast and crew setting up Less Miserable at The Steel Yard! – J.

Sometimes we work for ages to achieve our vision, slogging over untrodden terrain, encountering fearsome obstacles, overcoming them, and transforming ourselves in the process.

Other times our vision springs forth fully formed out of nowhere. Or, in this case, out of Vermont.

I saw Less Miserable on July 2nd at the Steel Yard in Providence, Rhode Island. A repurposed industrial space, the Steel Yard is about as far from the plush (or as one fellow audience member put it, ‘fluffy’) theatres that usually host large-scale musicals. My father and I watched the bold reinterpretation of Schöenberg’s opus sitting on large stretches of upholstery fabric set between the elegant, papier-mache proscenium and the several rows of actual seating behind us. The waxing moon shone down through the small-paned industrial windows on a production that wore its DIY origins proudly on its sleeve like Gavroche’s patch. We saw clearly the system of ropes holding up the backdrop, the rollerblade wheels that allow the gigantic turntable stage to spin, and though the production does have a few magical surprises up its voluminous sleeves (no spoilers here, my dearie-os!), the overall aesthetic of the show is frank – you know you’re watching a show. Despite conventional theatrical wisdom, this is not by any means a flaw.

When the red-and-white polka-dotted curtain rose, the band struck up, and the singing began, I was as impressed with the performers as I had been with the set. True, several of the vocalists were somewhat timid, and none of the vocalists were as polished as one might hear in a ‘fluffy’ theatre on Broadway, the music was every bit as moving as one expects during passages like “I dreamed a dream,” “One Day More,” and “On My Own,” and the rousing anthem “Do You Hear the People Sing” has never struck me like it did that night. Their Valjean (a thousand apologies for not knowing actors’ names – I left my program in Providence!) was appropriately haunted, their Javert a paragon of State-sponsored evil. Fantine’s performance tempered tragedy with dignity and did so with one of the best voices in the cast. The Thenardiers were both likably villainous, reminding me to a shocking degree of certain budget-slashing Republicans I might name, and the use of puppets for Gavroche and the young Cosette and Eponine was an inspired touch. The production made unabashed and very interesting use of bender gending, casting several women as male sailors and students, with men and women alike portraying prostitutes during ‘lovely ladies,’ but the choice of a young man to play the grown Eponine made a great impression on me – he sang and acted the part well enough that by the end of the show, casting him to play her seemed entirely natural.

I cannot quite summarize just how refreshing it is to see theatre done this way. I have, of course, been writing about DIY theatre for a good while now, and speculating with varying degrees of accuracy and romance about how an audience would respond to such a piece. As you may well imagine, I was fascinated to see the reaction of the crowd at Less Miserable. I am uncertain whether it was the unconventional location, the young, hip crowd in attendance, the informal seating, the influence of the waxing moon or what, but the performance sparked conversations between strangers in the ticket line, the toilet line, and both between the acts and after the show. Everyone seemed to be connecting with this piece in a deep way; the revolt portrayed in the show was described by one audience member as ‘Occupy Paris – 1832,’ another said that she felt the show was more ‘attainable’ than shows she had seen in ‘fluffy’ venues without being any less impressive. The whole place buzzed with creative energy as people exchanged emails, talked with actors and musicians about their process, and I felt the giddy, effervescent thrill that comes from seeing the Infinite Lotus of the Muses in action. Now that I have thoroughly read the director’s note and browsed the show’s blog, I have some vague idea of what it took to make the performance I saw possible. The ensemble, who assembled from all over the country, lived, ate, and worked together for all of June of this year, learning songs, making props, sets, costumes, and trying to stay dry on their corner of Glover, VT, and their efforts produced a truly aesthetic experience.

Far too often, theatregoers are met with little more than clever affirmations of their own lives, choices, and mythologies. This experience can be described in medical terms as anaesthetic – it puts us to sleep! Any form of media that reinforces the robotic imprints and conditioning that most of us obey is a mental anaesthetic. So, when I say that Less Miserable is an aesthetic experience, I mean to say that it challenged me – it took my entire sensory/emotional/rational matrix and shook up its assumptions about theatre generally, about ‘Les Miz,’ and about theatre as a DIY enterprise. It pushed my definition of beauty into channels that are rarely exercised these days, it stoked my revolutionary zeal, in short, it WOKE ME UP! And I very much hope you will check it out and let it wake you up, too. Sadly, the tour comes to an end very soon, but it is not too late to catch them in Philly!


July 6&7: Philadelphia, PA (The Beaumont Warehouse, 50th St. & Beaumont Ave.)

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