Off on a Tangent: Intimate theatre thrives in Tivoli

Michael Rhodes, Tangent’s artistic director (photo by Andrea Rhodes)

The Black Swan, with its low black beams and Guinness on tap, is Tivoli’s answer to the classic Irish pub. You can dine on shepherds’ pie, seated in old church pews, or discourse on politics, philosophy or poetry with an agreeable bunch at the bar – except, of course, when there’s a play reading in progress, and the packed house is quiet as the proverbial dormouse.

The readers would be members of Tangent, the Village of Tivoli’s resident theatre company, whose monthly (usually) presentations at the Swan were inspired by a trip to Dublin a few years back, when a member of the AboutFACE Theatre troupe suggested a cool new way to present drama and comedy.

“We were having a few pints,” recalls Michael Rhodes, Tangent’s artistic director, “and one of the actors said, ‘Hey, have you guys ever thought of doing pub theatre?’ And we realized it’s a great way to reach your audience, low-cost and very intimate – as a friend put it, it’s like storytime for adults, with whiskey.”

On a Sunday evening in late September, we made the trek to Tivoli – a venerable Hudson River community that in latter days has become a bohemian outpost of Bard College – to the convivial pub at 66 Broadway. We were there for Tangent’s reading of God of Carnage, a fierce, funny play by Yasmina Reza that demonstrates, among other things, how thin the veneer of our civilized behavior is, and how quickly it can devolve into violence and viciousness.

An impressive roster of actors has incarnated the play’s two sparring couples in various productions, among them Marcia Gay Harden, Ralph Fiennes, Janet McTeer, the late James Gandolfini and, in Roman Polanski’s film version, John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster, Cate Blanchett and Christoph Waltz. But the four actors, perched on stools, who held forth at the Black Swan that night – Rhodes, Summer Corrie, Christopher Hahn and Amy Lemon Olson, with Steven Austin Young reading stage directions – were as good a fit for this play as any that we’ve seen. They read with gusto, fully inhabiting their juicy roles with the seamless interplay of a chamber music ensemble, despite the fact that they had never worked together as a unit before and had had only two rehearsals.

Moreover, the informal-but-highly-charged ambience, the closeness of the audience to the actors and the freedom to exercise one’s imagination in the absence of any set, props and costumes in many ways made for a more rewarding experience than seeing the play in a Broadway or West End theatre.

But Tangent’s activities are not confined to monthly readings in the local tavern. Since relocating from New York City in 2009, the company, whose main stage is the 50-seat Carpenter Shop Theater just down the block from the Black Swan, does one fully staged, off-book production every year, the most recent one being Donald Margulies’ Sight Unseen. (Others have included Edward Albee’s Zoo Story and a hugely successful American premiere of an Irish play, The Good Father, by Christian O’Reilly). And coming up is the company’s third annual NEWvember New Plays Festival, a four-day jamboree featuring rehearsed readings of original plays that takes place from November 7 through 10.

For NEWvember, Rhodes says that he and the Festival’s co-producers, Paul and Anna Nugent of AboutFACE, “look for playwrights with strong voices, bold choices and attention to character, and we had more than a few to choose from this year.” The trio took on the Herculean labor of sifting through 318 new plays from all over the map, including Ireland and the United Kingdom, and even from an incarcerated writer in a nearby correctional facility. “We try to have a certain variety in the lineup, and though we lean toward dramas, we like to have a light, fun comedy in there, too, to add a nice little balance,” says Rhodes.

The six previously unproduced plays that made the final cut are as follows:

The Park Bench Hero by Elias Diamond, in which a Civil War reenactor enlists a wannabe soldier to help him take revenge on his girlfriend;

A Position of Relative Importance by Hal Borden, a spoof of corporate job-seeking that keys on a case of mistaken identity;

Brutal Selfish Rattlesnake by Aaron Weissman, which evokes the ever-present myth of the Old West with an interweaving of murder, ghosts and music;

Reveille by Jessica Bedford, wherein a woman is smuggled into a military cadet barracks;

Drag the Past by Shannon Reed, in which a woman’s small-town roots begin to encroach on her life in the big city;

Westward Mutations by Kristen Palmer, which centers on an ailing man and two teens as they take it on the lam across America;

The Long Wet Grass, by Seamus Scanlon, an examination of the Troubles in Northern Ireland circa 1980; and

Keep Calm and Carry On, by Melissa Annis, in which a Welsh couple suffers the loss of a son in Iraq.

A complete schedule for the NEWvember Festival can be had at the company’s website, https://tangent-arts.org, or at https://newvemberfestival.com. Performances take place at the Carpenter Shop Theatre at 60 Broadway in Tivoli on Thursday and Friday, November 7 and 8 at 8 p.m., and on Saturday and Sunday, November 9 and 10 at 2 and 8 p.m. Admission is a bargain at $15; a festival pass for the whole caboodle – all eight plays – costs $60.

After NEWvember, Rhodes says that he and his wife Andrea (the company’s producing director) will “likely fall into a coma after a long year for Tangent,” but hope to be roused by the “restorative powers of Guinness” on a return trip to Ireland. “We might do a quick pub read in early December – maybe something light and fun – to say thanks for 2013. But at the moment, I don’t know what that play is, or if we’ll be able to get it off the ground, since people tend to be crazed around the holidays. We may simply elect to come back in January with a pub read or two, as Tivoli is quite quiet at that time.” Long before the crocuses hit the boards, though, they’ll be planning the fully staged March 2014 production, which begins rehearsing in February.

NEWvember New Plays Festival, Thursday and Friday, November 7 and 8 at 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, November 9 and 10 at 2 and 8 p.m., Carpenter Shop Theatre, 60 Broadway, Tivoli, $15 per play or $60 for six-play festival pass; (845) 230-7020; https://tangent-arts.org, or https://newvemberfestival.com.

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