EMPAC hosts RPI Players

Anxious theater attendees clustered in the lower lobby of the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, awaiting entry to the RPI Players’ performance of Our Town. The excited crowd was led into EMPAC Studio 1, where they were seated nearly beneath a screen that wound about the performance space in a near-complete circle. There was no stage, and the props were limited to a series of gray boxes and a few ladders kept in the back.

Our Town was written by Thornton Wilder in 1938. Its story focuses on the calm and simple life of the citizens of Grover’s Corners, a small New Hampshire town set in the year 1901. The play’s stage manager and—at certain times—members of the cast are aware of the audience. The stage manager offers exposition of the characters and town, interacts with audience members, acts as some background characters, and even brings in a “professor” to discuss Grover’s Corners history. Rob Stewart did an excellent job as the stage manager, calling upon old-fashioned mannerisms and speech to create a sincere performance.

The story itself is uncomplicated and follows the Gibbs family and the Webb family, along with other townspeople. Doc Gibbs, played by Zachariah Spurrier ’18, is a well-meaning and yet stern father to his son, George, played by Barnabé Bouchenoir ’18, and daughter, Rebecca, played by Imani Taylor ’20. Mrs. Gibbs, played by Monica Hoh, is a hard-working mother of two with a dream to see Paris, or at least some place beyond the town limits. Just across the way live Mr. Webb, played by Kyle Johnson, with his wife Mrs. Webb, played by Taylor Turner ’17, son Wally, played by Mark Blum ’19, and a daughter who he dotes upon, Emily, played by Rachel Ruller.

As the commonplace, everyday events occur, an innocent romance begins to bud between George Gibbs and Emily Webb. As neighbors and classmates, they naturally become friends, and eventually lovers. The two get married and live their life on the farm that George inherited from his uncle. The third and final act of Our Town opens up on a graveyard. After some time has passed, citizens of the town have died and their characters dressed all in white sit upon their graves. Emily joins them after she dies giving birth. In the afterlife, she confides in her mother-in-law, who has also passed away, that she wants to relive a happy day from her life.

This proves an ill-advised course of action. Emily realizes as she relives her twelfth birthday that she didn’t hug her father tight enough, or enjoy the breakfast her mother made her enough, or really appreciate enough the life she had while she had it. The entire meaning of the play culminates in these moments of realization; life, either simple or complicated, is precious, and that there is much for which to be thankful. The play ends with George sobbing at his wife’s grave and the stage manager bidding the audience goodnight.

This timeless play was done justice by the talented cast and crew of Our Town. I cannot rave enough over the well-done acting which transported the audience to another era. The immersive experience, a tremendous feat brought on by the collaboration of the Humanities Arts and Social Sciences department, EMPAC, the Rensselaer Union, the Rensselaer Choir, Seattle 4Culture grant program, and of course, the Players, delivered. The 360-degree screen above the heads of the players displayed a series of ink drawings and some paintings made by Seattle visual artist Clare Johnson. With an Xbox Kinect placed beneath one of the platforms, the stage manager was able to move his arms in such a way that would manipulate what was being displayed on the screen. It rendered such a powerful impact, sending across that message of the simplicity of life with such satisfying definition.

This was an incredible performance by the Players. I hope to see more usage of the facilities at EMPAC by them. 10/10