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I'll preface this review by saying I'm not a theatre critic, I've never acted in a stage performance, never been around theater much (aside from working lights and sound for a high school production), and I only go to a couple performances a year, if that. But I enjoy a good theatre production, and I have great respect for the artists who make them happen, a number of whom are my friends. So I don't really see plays on a technical level, I see them the way they were seen before film: Entertainment.
This week, I was invited to go see the opening performance of Claudie Hukill, presented by the Venus Theatre Play Shack. I really didn't know what to expect going into it, but I was blown away at how enjoyable the show was, and how well it was performed.
Claudie Hukill is a story about a coal-mining family in 1970s West Virginia, largely focusing on the brother of the title character, Rob Hukill. Like other intellectually-talented people in areas like that, Rob left town to seek a career in a major metro area, and became a staff writer for the Boston Globe. In this story, Rob has returned home to West Virginia for the first time in a number of years, to deal with both professional and personal business, while everyone talks constantly about Rob's brother Claudie.
Having grown up in rural Virginia (though in a family with farming roots instead of mining), the story resonated personally with me quite a bit. The characters sounded like people I grew up with, and I have a lot in common with Rob; left a rural area to do something creative in an upscale urban area, feeling awkwardly out-of-place whenever I go back. Beyond that, though, the story is really powerful to anyone, with exceptionally well-written characters. It's a serious performance, but with comedic moments, and very well-paced.
The actors involved in this performance did a fantastic job, all around. Especially since it was opening night, where things are most likely to go wrong and mistakes are most likely to happen. That was not the case here. The show was performed flawlessly, with very believable acting, no noticeable mistakes, and very creative use of the space. The actress playing Rob's elderly mother was particularly noteworthy; her character is blind, and her portrayal of a blind woman was so convincing that, at times, I wondered if the actress herself couldn't see.
One thing I've always enjoyed about stage plays is the ability of skilled actors to create an immersive, engaging, entertaining show with minimal set pieces. It's hard to do well, and I have great respect for talented artists who can do it. The Venus Theatre's venue adds an extra layer of difficulty; instead of a traditional stage, with the audience in one place, this was a stage in the center of a room, with the audience on two sides. It created a really fascinating experience unlike any other play I've been to, and I was impressed at how the actors stayed 100% in-character at all times, even when they weren't on the main stage or visible in the light. It's possible this helped with the immersion as well, as an audience member, but I can't be sure of that. One thing I can be sure of, though, is that the small, intimate seating was a ton of fun, and I think I prefer this to the grand stages of Broadway.
I mentioned immersion a couple of times, and it's something worth noting. In a world of multi-million-dollar movies with digital cinematography constantly pushing the envelope of their medium, and having to compete with everyone's personal distraction devices, I imagine that engaging an audience with a stage play is much harder than it was a hundred years ago. And immersion, the act of getting the audience so lost and engaged in your world that they forget they're watching actors on a stage, must be harder still. Even video games, the height of ADD-reactive entertainment, struggle with it. Admittedly, I've been to shows that, while reasonably well-performed, didn't feel the least bit immersive to me, and weren't overly engaging. This performance of Claudie Hukill was completely immersive to me for almost every minute of the show, and arguably the most entertaining stage play I've ever seen (tied with Equus at the Broadhurst Theatre in NYC).
In the interest of disclosure, I didn't randomly drop by this theatre to see the show, I was invited with a group to see my friend Chris Williams perform in it as Rob Hukill. I'd never seen him act before, other than one-off bits here and there to entertain friends, so aside from his rather impressive educational background, I had no idea how good he actually was as an actor. Turns out he's an absolutely exceptional one. Despite the strong similarities between the character of Rob Hukill and the person I know as Chris Williams, I didn't see Chris for the entire duration of the play. I saw Rob Hukill. And again, I don't have the experienced eye of a theatre critic or enthusiast, so take that for what you will.
This show is an absolute must-see for everyone. Even if you're a hundred miles away, it's worth seeing. The story is fantastic, and the production company is a true gem of Maryland. The show runs until December 23rd, and more information is on their website. Even if you miss this show, anything else they put together will probably be fantastic too, I know I'll be going back for more.
Additionally, the Venus Theatre Play Shack is a 501c3 non-profit organization, with a dedication to supporting the arts in Laurel, MD. They're certainly pretty awesome at what they do, so if you can't make it to a show, I'd recommend sending them a donation to keep operating and keep producing amazing art. Further information about what they use donations for is available here.