In the Thick of It

Rachel Feldman, left, and Morgan Duke Vaughn were part of a cast of two dozen performers spread over 40 roles in the HITFest reading of Tina Howe’s “Museum.” Jennifer Landes

A play reading always takes a lot of imagination on the audience’s part. In the Hamptons Independent Theatre Festival reading of “Museum,” however, it was the producers who put their imaginations to work on the staging to make it a unique experience — for a reading or any type of play production.
    The play has dozens of roles, many of which, because of its format of vignettes, can be performed by the same actors. It takes place in a museum where an exhibit of contemporary art is in its last day.
    The art in the play is described with enough broadness to be fabricated pretty easily: some blank canvases, human forms made out of recycled materials and hung on a clothesline, and some objects made from the bones and teeth of animals. HITFest does a lot with little to make these objects believable.
    The production also moves the action down to the level of the audience. The exhibits are placed throughout the Bridgehampton Community House. There are seats in the middle and along the sides of the makeshift gallery space, and the audience is encouraged to move around as if they were just coming upon conversations in a gallery.
    The last part didn’t quite work as intended, but with almost every seat filled, and very good staging, it was possible to see most if not all of the action no matter where the viewer was seated. As a result, no one felt the need to leave his or her seat.
    Well, actually, with the exception of me. I did move my seat, and it provided a refreshing change of perspective. In a recent interview, Joshua Perl, the artistic director of HITFest, coined the term “theater all around” to describe the experience. He also moved around the room from time to time, apparently in an effort to offer some whispered guidance to the players.
    Many of the actors held the script during the reading, but others had learned their lines enough to go without, or at least to deliver parts of the text while not reading it directly. Each of the actors were sufficiently well directed by Hilary Adams to make the play transporting even while the audience never lost sight of the fact that it was a reading.
    Although the writing was dated in some ways, it did show that things in the rarefied art world have not changed all that much in the 35 years since it was written. References to 1970s and 1980s staples such as spinach salad, quiche, tarragon, and second-story SoHo galleries aside, the words on the page seem as fresh and relevant as ever.
    What is fun and effective about the play is that it doesn’t introduce characters who actually laugh at the art until close to the end. The people whose reverence is unquestioning are the ones who are gently skewered. A few characters may ask questions, but an explanation is provided by a docent whose expertise is conveyed with such authority that the viewers are lulled into understanding. It is the characters who are most “inside” the art world who are the subjects of satisfactory and well-informed satire.
     My only qualm about this first performance (it will return on Sunday and on April 17 at 4 p.m.) is that some actors should be reminded that they are basically performing in the round and need to increase the variation in their stances and interactions so more of the audience can see them. Some of the voices were also lost in the cavernous space and could use more projection.
    Other than that, the production is a creative and artistic success and an enjoyable way to spend a Sunday afternoon.