Performing Outside the Box

Fall series at Flat Rock Playhouse spotlights a fresh perspective

Actors Odera Adimorah (left) and Arusi Santi (right) play brothers in Blood Knot, a play set in Apartheid-era South Africa. Vickie Washington (center) directs.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

There’s nothing wrong with family-friendly musicals like Million Dollar Quartet, Cats, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. These PG sensations warm the heart. Plus, they attract droves of patrons to Flat Rock Playhouse each year. 

However, for certain theatergoers, watching Linus and Lucy spruce up a sad sapling — for the nth yuletide season — isn’t enough.   

“Musicals have their place,” says Lisa K. Bryant, the Playhouse’s producing artistic director. “But some folks have a hankering for more serious, contemporary shows that they can sink their teeth into.” 

SHOUT OUT
Flat Rock Playhouse veteran comic actor Scott Treadway, far left, joins Marcy McGuigan, Rachel Burttram (second from right), and Brendan Powers. The four play warring couples in the dark comedy God of Carnage, directed by Lisa K. Bryant (center), who’s also the Playhouse’s Producing Artistic Director.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

To whet that appetite, Flat Rock unveiled its Black Box Series last month. Running through October 9, the series supplements the usual playbill with two grittier pieces that are new to the Leiman Mainstage. 

The first to debut, God of Carnage, is a dark comedy that “points the finger at our foibles as human beings,” says Bryant, who is directing the show. 

The production opens in a Brooklyn living room: “No realism. Nothing superfluous,” French playwright Yasmina Reza has remarked of her triple-Tony-Award-winning script. The mood is “serious, friendly, and tolerant” as two sets of parents — the Vallons and the Reilles — sit down to discuss a playground altercation between their 11-year-old boys. 

Though the conversation opens with an air of civility, it slowly devolves. As the parents guzzle rum, they begin to argue not just about child-rearing techniques, but about the principles of marrying and breeding altogether. 

“The adults have their own ‘playground brawl,’ if you will,” says Bryant, who promises 90 minutes of dark, gut-splitting humor and socially charged content. “It’s a funny and clever piece, but there’s definitely some commentary that’s 1,000-percent relevant.”

Shown here amid construction of the new Black Box theater, producing Artistic Director Lisa K. Bryant helps set the stage for a new era at Flat Rock Playhouse.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

By comparison, Blood Knot affords a more serious, meditative look at the human condition. Written by South African playwright Athol Fugard, the production debuted in 1964 and explores the relationship between two biracial half-brothers: Zachariah, who is dark-skinned, and Morris, who could pass for white. 

Together, the brothers live in a derelict shack in segregated Port Elizabeth, South Africa (renamed Gqeberha last year), where they must “navigate their lives under this evil system of Apartheid,” says Texas-based director Vickie Washington. 

Washington explains how tensions mount when Zachariah strikes up a pen-pal relationship with a white girl and begins fantasizing about the two falling in love — a romance rendered illegal by the country’s instituted policies of white oppression (Apartheid wasn’t abolished until 1990). What follows is a heartbreaking exploration of family and social mores. 

“There are some truly painful moments,” Washington notes. “But, like with all sibling relationships, there are also moments of joy and laughter.”

In that way, Blood Knot feels familiar. Despite being set in Apartheid South Africa, modern viewers can relate to the characters and leave the theater with a changed outlook — if not on race, then on kinship. 

“Our way of walking through the world is becoming narrower and narrower,” the director says. “So, when you have an opportunity to expose audiences to the width and breadth of the human experience, you take it.”

But Flat Rock’s Black Box Series offers a fresh perspective in a more literal way, too. 

With 468 seats, the Leiman Mainstage is palatial by local standards. Conceivably, the theater could accommodate every man, woman, and child living in the rural Henderson County community of Gerton. Point being: The place is big. Though this allows the professional Playhouse to host tens of thousands of people annually, the sprawling footprint has its downsides.

“Our theater is so long — it just goes back for days,” says Bryant. “Sadly, shows lose a little bit of their punch by row 22.” 

To remedy this, the Black Box Series invites patrons onto the Leiman Mainstage, where they can watch storylines unfold from just feet away. As Artistic Associate Matthew Glover explains, the stage is configured such that 160 seats surround a slightly elevated platform. This theater-in-the-round arrangement ensures 360-degree views. 

“You’re very close to the actors, so there’s not a bad seat in the house,” says Glover. And though the theatrical experience will be intimate and immersive, Glover is quick to note that it won’t be participatory. “That’s a big fear for people,” he notes. 

Another fear for regular patrons is the unknown. After all, this series diverges sharply from what Flat Rock usually puts on.

“People are trepidatious. They aren’t sure what to expect,” Glover admits. 

Hesitation aside, the Playhouse feels a certain artistic — even moral — obligation to push the boundary and introduce Hendersonville to more substantial works. 

“As professional storytellers, we have to do our part to truly represent all kinds of stories,” says Bryant. “We want to expose our community to different points of view.”  

God of Carnage runs through Saturday, Oct. 8, on the Leiman Mainstage of Flat Rock Playhouse (2661 Greenville Hwy., Flat Rock). Blood Knot runs through Sunday, Oct. 9. For dates, times, and ticket information, call 828-693-0731 or see flatrockplayhouse.org. 

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