They are young, they are angry, they speak in iambic pentameter and they have just begun a revolution. Wielding metal pipes, baseball bats and knives, they hack and smack one another with the kind of intensity and enthusiasm that older people assume young folks only have for text-messaging. And they do it to really great music.
They are the cast of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, recently opened in Santa Rosa by the Narrow Way Stage Company (named for the Pink Floyd song and acting coach Sanford Meisner’s famous assertion that the theater should be a dangerous, narrow way, like walking a tightrope without a net).
Envisioned by director Rush Cosgrove as a “remix” of Shakespeare’s futility-of-war epic, the show features a cast of young North Bay actors, and blasts a rocking soundtrack with the likes of Marilyn Manson and Rage Against the Machine doing covers of famous songs like “Sweet Dreams” and “Imagine.” The armies carry spray-paint cans to mark their territories in Shakespearean graffiti, and when Caesar’s ghost appears to torment his murderer Brutus, he does so as a booming, distorted projection cast Big Brother—like onto a nearby wall.
The show is notable in that it is designed to appeal to an audience under the age of 35, a demographic that the Narrow Way crew—and a lot of other young theater fans—believe is virtually ignored by most of the 50 or so theater companies operating this side of the bridge.
Whether those younger audiences will show up for the three-weekend run of Caesar—or David Rabe’s edgy comedy The Dog Problem, which Narrow Way is staging in repertory with the Shakespeare show—is beside the point. According to Chris Ginesi, the company’s co-founder and artistic director, this show is an example of a nearly invisible subculture of the North Bay theater scene, as marginalized young actors and directors attempt to carve out a place in a theater community that for years has been aimed primarily at subscription-holding older folks (who, by the way, are eventually going to die, leaving a whole lot of empty seats in local theaters).
“If anyone besides us wants theater in this county to survive,” Ginesi says, “and for young people to be the audiences of the future, then they have to support the young companies. We can rock it really hard on stage, but if no one comes, it’s kind of a waste of time.”
Narrow Way, with its rowdy refusal to behave as if they were indeed marginalized, is the most aggressive of the local youth-run theater groups, but they are not alone. A group called the Actor’s Basement, which performs occasionally at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma, had some success with last year’s rock ‘n’ roll transformation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and plans this fall to produce Darrow Come Home, an original play by Dan Farley about American soldiers returned from Iraq.
Actor-writer Lito Briano last year formed Jade Dragon Theatre Company in order to produce The Heart Bleeds Blue, his raw original drama about rape and AIDS, which drew an audience at the SRJC based mainly on its actors’ astonishingly committed performances. Local writer Merlyn Sell has been developing original material, such as her popular, experimental comedy-drama Circus Acts, which has been staged at SSU, SRJC and by the Actor’s Basement.
Though little more than a blip on the local scene, such companies have arisen precisely because, short of taking a trip to San Francisco, many young theater fans believe there is nowhere to go where they are truly wanted.
“When I go to the theater,” says Nick Christianson, co-founder of Narrow Way and Brutus in Caesar, “it’s so disheartening to see so few young people in the audience. They’ve been burned too many times by being dragged to see Damn Yankees or something. So now they just assume that whatever is being presented on stage around here is not going to appeal to them.”
Daniel Thompson, co-founder of the Actor’s Basement, agrees.
“Look, theater is a marginal art,” he says. “In this county, it’s an art that has become totally based on fear. Everyone is so afraid to do something new and courageous. The established theater companies are so afraid of ticking off their subscriber base that they might schedule one edgy or experimental piece in a season and fill the rest of the schedule with stuff everyone has seen a hundred times. If you start doing things that younger people want to see, you will get them into the theater, but it may take a while, because at the moment, they don’t trust you.”
‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘The Dog Problem’ run through Sunday, Aug. 18, at the Glaser Center, 547 Mendocino Avenue, Santa Rosa. $10-$15. For information visit www.myspace.com/narrowwaystage.
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