Edgy U.K. theater troupe follows British hit with Great Barrington residency
August is the season for so-called fringe theater festivals, where emerging artists try out their non-traditional theater styles for audiences. At Berkshire Fringe in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the British troupe Wardrobe Ensemble is making its first visit to America—performing a grassroots hit it created back home across the pond.
In a small black box theater in Great Barrington, a nine-member theater troupe of British twentysomethings is following a grassroots hit back home with its United States debut—a fast-paced view of a stampede at a furniture store opening.
Riot employs generous doses of song and dance, highly choreographed movement and the occasional stage fight. Actors frequently reposition set pieces, composed entirely entirely of desk lamps and white folding chairs that could have been purchased at anyone’s favorite Swedish furniture store.
Troupe member Jesse Meadows describes the pace.
“We have a particular style, that I guess revolves around having nine of us onstage and from that and from our energy--and it’s slightly crazy and manic and we’re all on stage, all of the time.”
In this scene, a crack onstage musical quartet helps simulate the chaos and confusion as the store’s doors open and the crowd surges.
Wardrobe Ensemble is in residence here at Berkshire Fringe for three weeks, performing Riot in the evenings and developing their second, ensemble-created play during the days.
On a Sunday afternoon, troupe member Tom Brennan prints out some fresh script pages and hands them out. They’re soon stacked in little piles on various corners of the stage, where troupe members work on separate bits simultaneously.
That’s Meadows and James Newton. Wardrobe's culturally aware, slightly absurd touch is evident in the new piece. In this scene, a trapped Chilean miner hallucinates that he’s slow-dancing with Elvis Presley. Brennan coaches Edith Woolley on how much Elvis to put into her voice.
They created Riot together while training at the Old Vic theater in Bristol and brought it to the prestigious Edinburgh Festival Fringe last August. It was a breakout hit, propelling them through a long and successful national tour that culminated shortly before their trip to America—a huge step for the young group.
Ben Vardy says the energy from the Berkshire crowds is helping them hone the show for an American audience.
“It’s a continuously updating process, you know, even as we’re performing it here or as we performed it at Edinburgh you’re constantly trying to find new little bits, fresh little ways of doing things. So it’s never a finished project.”
The troupe is giving a free workshop on physical theater at Berkshire Fringe tomorrow, and performs Riot there through August 13. Then they head south for their first New York City show, and up to Syracuse, New York for two more shows before heading home—for now.