“The Plein Air Plays” Offer Breathtaking Vistas

What may have started as a necessity during COVID’s enforced distancing and ready ventilation has turned into an inspired new form of theater for the Ancram Opera House. Their second edition of Plein Air Plays has audience members meeting up at a location, viewing an original one-act, twenty-minute play, then hopping in their cars and following the program to two more locations. Through the choice of setting, performer, and story, you get a heady mix of vista, personality, and ideas conveyed quickly and viscerally. And then you’re off to another one just as you have fallen deep into the story’s charms.

Opening night needed some quick work on the part of the organizers as two performances were joined into one and moved an hour up to avoid impending rain, which it still wasn’t altogether successful at. Theater is nothing if it’s not endless preparation and supplication to the powers that be for a happy outcome. Thankfully, I’m happy to report that Thursday night’s performance was an unqualified success despite the weather and extra work.

We started at the Ancram Town Hall’s large backyard and playground, where Abuzar Farrukh performed “Made in Pakistan” by Mukta Phatak, directed by AOH co-director Paul Ricciardi. There is an intense amount of information to gather in this outdoor setting as Farrukh explains his Green Card status and recounts his daughter’s birth and troubled history in Pakistan, including a brief mention of the horrific Partition. He demonstrates how soccer balls were made, singing a gentle “back and forth and you’ll be done/adding pieces one by one” and speaking of what he has learned, that “footballers make the next choice a better one.” You feel his deep connection and his almost embarrassed passion for teaching football to his team of Ancram Avalanche girls, especially when you remember that he started the piece saying how much he loved the soccer ball because it was made for joy and playfulness, not war. It is a charming rending performance that works quickly and stealthily into your heart.

Into the car and a quick drive up Doodletown Road, where you will pass a Gays for Trump sign (What the what!?!) on one of the neighbor’s houses before arriving in a sylvan glade set back off the road. A platform has been set up. An older couple (the very fine Glenn Barrett and Martina Deignan) are sipping drinks while sitting on their white wicker furniture in “Summer” by Barbara Wiechmann, directed by AOH co-director Jeffrey Mousseau. The pair cannot exchange two words without contradicting each other or correcting one another’s memories. Deignan’s recollections seem to go apocalyptic, with fireworks blowing up in front of her face and images of people being burned to death and their hair going up in fire. Barrett inevitably responds with denial and minimization of her traumatic experiences. The carefully ordered civility of this exchange takes on a frightening import this week with the images of the Lahaina Fire in the New York Times this week. The play became a treatise on climate denial, which may not be what the playwright intended at all.

Lastly, we’re headed to a small historic graveyard where Salty Brine, the cabaret performer, will play a gravedigger in a piece he wrote called “Giving up the Ghosts.” Salty works the crowd in front of the markers that go back centuries as if he were prowling through a nightclub and will croon a chorus of “People” at a moment’s notice. He’s got a great bit where he divines how the person died by holding his hand over the marker: “tripped and fell, choked on a chicken bone…” Then he turns it on the audience, imagining our deaths. The cemetery is his stage, and he plays with “Hamlet” and the question of identity. “To be or not to be—that’s a stupid question.” The question for Salty and the challenge for us is, Who do you want to be? After the fear of death ingrained in us minute by minute by the pandemic, it’s a useful meditation coming from this offbeat dazzler in a country graveyard.

If the characters are meant to be representative of the community’s residents or of the collective soul emanating from this arts incubator, “The Plein Air Plays” attests to the deep and wondrous magic of this essential playhouse.

“The Plein Air Plays” runs through 8/20 at various locations in Ancram, NY. Tickets: www.ancramoperahouse.org or 518-329-0114 

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