Our Town – an attempt at Metatheatre

American playwright Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-prize-winning play ‘Our Town’ was brought to life before Colombo’s theatre-going audience, by the talented folks at Cue Theatre Co. at Lionel Wendt September 22 weekend.

Directed by Ranga Jayaratne, the performance marks the 80th anniversary of this metatheatrical three-act play, said to be the only play which is performed every night somewhere in the United States and throughout the world.

Our Town tells the story of Grover’s Corners, a small fictional American town, and the everyday lives of its inhabitants from 1901 to 1913.

The play is particularly notable for the very specific style it adopts – metatheatrical devices employed by Thornton Wilder.

The main character is the stage manager, who directly addresses the audience and then brings in guest lecturers, takes questions from the audience, and even fills in by playing some roles.

It is also performed on a nearly bare stage, with the actors using scarcely any props, as they mimed their actions.

Wilder called Our Town his favourite work, but complained that it was rarely done right, insisting that it “should be performed without sentimentality or ponderousness – simply, dryly and sincerely.”

Director Jayaratne’s rendition, however, was at warring factions with both what Wilder had wanted and did not want, not really embracing either side entirely.

While the scene was set for something magical; lit in such a way that one would disassociate it from the real world, the meta-ness of the play relentlessly clashed with the chosen tone and setting.

The set-up indicated that the audience was about to be transported, but the stage manager, who was to be the main character for the night, was unable to guide his audience to where he needed them to go.

His delivery of hurried dialogue, and somewhat nonchalant performance, was cluttered and uninspired, often detracting from the experience altogether.

As one makes their way through the three-act structure, the first act stands out as being considerably weak in comparison to the second and third.

An audience member Karinda Cooray said: “The first act was kind of boring, it was hard to keep up, but the second act was more emotional.”

Another audience member added: “I couldn’t hear some of what they were saying – it was pretty unclear.”

However, as the play progressed, some of the jokes began to land better with the audience, drawing out a few laughs, and some audible ‘awws’.

It appeared that while the play as a whole was enjoyable enough, the meta-ness of it felt rather new to some who were in attendance; Layanthi Senanayake, who was accompanied by her young son said: “It’s quite unconventional, a bit difficult to grasp, and it feels a bit slow. I think I much prefer the traditional way.”

Regardless, there were some truly lovely moments that were delightfully performed by the young-ish cast, and there were some wonderfully pleasant surprises along the way as the third act drew to a close.

The Director, speaking about how she went about curating her cast said: “Basically, we opened up for anyone to come, anyone is welcome; we don’t ask for experience, what kind of performances they’ve been in, what kind of roles they’ve played. If you like theatre, you can come and we’ll train you, and you can get on stage –it’s a place where any misfit can come and feel at home.”

From the standpoint of someone who truly wishes well for English theatre in Sri Lanka, this sounds wonderfully promising, to allow passionate individuals on a platform to showcase their talents, and to explore.

Our Town, overall, was a well put-together play with some minor tuning issues. Nevertheless, the music was fantastic, the costumes were believable, and the cast was certainly passionate, and beyond that, it’s all a matter of perspective.

By Dimithri Wijesinghe

Photos Indika Handuwela