“Arden: But, Not Without You!” playing at The Flea at 20 Thomas Street, is a very unusual theatrical experience, which attempts to create a space where cast members and audience can look at the negativity of the world and try to find a way that we can all come together. The production depends a great deal upon the audience interacting with the cast members, as scenarios are brought up and audience members are asked what they would do. There is a feeling of trying to learn lessons on human behavior from our wise elders, a feeling of us needing to acknowledge the wrongs done to many of us, but also learning to forgive them, so that we can come together and find common ground and peace.
The piece includes material from Okwui Okpokwasili. The seven cast members include Peter Born, Sharae Moultrie, Diana Oh (co-music director), Niegel Smith (who is also the artistic director of “The Flea” and co-director of the production), Carrie Mae Weems, Nia Witherspoon (another co-director) and Jack Fuller (co-music director). The cast endeavors to speak truth to the ugly things that have happened to different ethnic groups; they call the events out and then try to create a spiritual approach. The audience is invited to go into a place of serenity as you hum with the cast, who alternate between humming and singing. This is not a theatrical experience one might expect. In some ways it may make you feel a bit uncomfortable at first, but slowly your defenses may go down and you may start to buy into participating.
The cast shares stories of their lives and then turns to the audience members and asks them questions about themselves—their hopes, their dreams, and how they are feeling at that present moment. There’s something intriguing about being in a theater that is presenting an unconventional work and suddenly, as an audience member, being in the spotlight. But the atmosphere was one of compassion and humor, which was interesting. While all the cast had different roles at times, it was Diana Oh who led the way, often singing and encouraging the audience. Her voice is incredible. She has a gift that thrills the listener and makes you want to hear more. A large part of this production involved improvisation, and Oh handled it with energy, humor and grace, and was able to relax audience members to the point of getting them to engage with her and answer questions. Smith often participated and had fun with what was happening under his supervision; Jack Fuller has a magnificently stunning voice; and the production has marvelous music by an all-female band that includes Serena Ebony Miller on bass, Bernice “Boom Boom” Brooks on percussion and Viva DeConcini on guitar.
The production will end March 13. I don’t know what you expect when you go to the theater, but if you are open to the unexpected you may want to consider this production. Just be warned it is not the usual bill of fare. Visit theflea.org/shows/arden/ for more info.