The Sanctuary Theatre’s Performing Knowledge Project will open its world premiere of Elizabeth Bruce’s Legal Tender on July 13th at 8:45 PM at the Gear Box Theatre, 1021 7th St., NW. What makes this Capital Fringe world premiere so unique, however, is the fact that Legal Tender is not actually a play at all. Rather, it is a series of nine flash fiction pieces, pieces unchanged from their original prose, now being performed by a talented five-person ensemble, with lights, sounds, and costumes.
Bruce has studied with such nationally recognized writers as Richard Bausch, Lee K. Abbott, Janet Peery, John McNally, and Liam Callanan. Indeed, Bausch calls her “a deeply gifted writer” whose “characters leap off the page at you.” Award-winning short story writer Lynn Stearns praises Bruce’s “incredible writer’s voice,” and Texas Institute of Letters’ award winner Lisa Schamess lauds Bruce’s “exquisite ear for language and a vivid sense of character.” Her debut novel, And Silent Left the Place, was published in 2007 by Washington Writers’ Publishing House, and received distinctions from the Texas Institute of Letters, Foreword Magazine, Small Press Distributors, and The Montserrat Review.
“What an extraordinary experience—seeing one’s fiction brought to life by actors, designers, and a director!” Elizabeth Bruce exclaimed after an early rehearsal of her nine vignettes. “Hearing the different voices of one’s characters—and especially watching the different points of view of a story inhabited by different actors—gives a writer incredible insight into these layers of fiction.”
And it is that insight into the stories that director Robert Michael Oliver hopes to capitalize on in this production. “That’s exactly what I want to bring to the prose with this production. The saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, I’m hoping to prove that Elizabeth’s words –when they are performed—are worth a thousand pictures.”
Each of the short pieces in Legal Tender begins with the phrase “one dollar,” and each explores the value and importance of that single dollar to the main character of the story. In one there is an 11-year-old boy who needs a buck for the Metro. In another there’s a woman who can’t part with a dollar for an airport caddy even though it would save her enormous aggravation. According to Oliver, each story “touches on a vital aspect of our humanity, and makes us smile.”
Performing prose, however, has its challenges, especially for the actors. Rachel Viele, who plays a range of characters from a Yankee Mom on a car trip with her two daughters through 1950s Texas to a “Ducky Wucky gal” in therapy for her anger issues, says that “in your average dramatic text it is fairly easy to get at the heart of the action…. In prose fiction, like Legal Tender, you have to dig a little deeper into the language to figure out where the action is hiding.”
And then there’s the text itself that actor Forrest Rilling says is “rich with story, symbolism, and texture…. With many shows, and movies, and TV shows there is a set lesson to be taught. With this show, and these works the audience will have the opportunity to grasp what they can from the work with no preconceived notions to what they should take away.” Rilling plays a number of different characters from a recently released con who doesn’t want to waste his twenty dollar bill at an exact change highway off ramp to the twisted memory of an alcoholic husband down to his last dollar and last gulp of vodka.
“The voice of these short pieces is fleshy and sensual,” says director Oliver, and that’s why “the narration has been divided up among different actors and characters.” Andrew White, another actor in the show—the one playing the alcoholic mentioned above—adds that one of the seriously fun aspects of performing in the show is that the actors are “collaborating on lines, literally finishing each other’s sentences, getting into each other’s heads.“ Rounding out the cast are Sharyce L. McElvane and Maya C. Oliver.
When the Sanctuary Theatre’s Performing Knowledge Project premiered Oliver’s one-man Embodying Poe in the 2011 Capital Fringe Festival, it branded itself as a live lit theatre company. To be sure, taking Edgar Allan Poe’s more mystical poetry and performing it for a Fringe audience—even if to rave reviews—might have been an act of pure foolishness. Nevertheless, the production launched the company’s poetry-in-performance work and helped establish its style and reputation. Legal Tender is its first prose-in-performance piece.
Elizabeth Bruce says that she can’t wait until the show opens and that she is enormously grateful for this collaboration, “to the terrific actors and production team for their artistry and imaginations. I’ve never seen a production like this—a kind of choral storytelling. What a fascinating new form! I’m eager to see how it works in front of an audience.”
Indeed, audiences will be able to judge for themselves come July 13 at 8:45 p.m. at Fringe Theatre’s GearBox, 1021 7th Street, NW, WDC, across from the Convention Center. Legal Tender has 7 performances between July 13-27, 2013. For tickets, schedule, and other information about the show, click here.