Ryan and Lisa with Typewriter_Photo by Lisa Daly and Ian Dunn

Heavy Meta

A funny thing happened on the way into the Shubert last Thursday.

It was opening night for Seen Change!, A Broken Umbrella Theatre’s original tribute to the 100-year-old playhouse. Following ushers’ instructions, we in the audience parked ourselves in the lobby, held tightly to our ticket stubs and kept our coats and hats and gloves about us.

Left unsaid was that we should also keep our wits about us, a necessity that became clear when the performance began right there in the lobby. The lead character—“Lisa, an apprentice,” the program calls her, played by real-life talent Lisa Daly (pictured right)—signaled the start, addressing us from the landing of the central stairway. Soon various figures were rushing in and out of the panoramic scene—above on the mezzanine, up or down the stairs, through the crowd at ground level—doing and shouting strange things.

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They were strange in part because Seen Change! unfolds in a complicated, reverse-engineered sort of way, with important blanks needing to be filled in later. Still, during the opening melee, bits and pieces of plot do tumble out for sharp ears and eyes to notice. You can tell that the play’s characters are trying to stage their own play at the Shubert, and that we in the audience have been cast as special-access patrons supporting that fictitious effort. You can pick up the detail that, just in time for our visit, everything’s going wrong for the play within the play: exasperated actors playing stage managers lament plans gone haywire, while actors playing actors express confusion at losing parts of their wardrobes and, of all things, finding pseudo-doppelgangers of themselves. Adding to all the “meta” mayhem is a video playback, popping up on screens around the Shubert’s lobby, showing a seemingly minor stage accident Lisa caused earlier, which you can tell is a bigger deal than any of the characters realize.

Are these insights sufficient to make sense of what’s happening at that point? Not really. But are they enough to keep you interested as the play shifts to its second setting, the lobby of the old Taft Hotel, just down a blustery stretch of College Street (hence the coats and hats and gloves)? Indubitably. Among the rewards to be found inside the Taft are the introduction of a major character, Timothy T. Wilson Willoughby, played with special excellence and devotion by Ryan Gardner (pictured left); the development of some of the other key characters of the play; more plot clues; and the first hints of the show’s increasingly important (and impressive) musicality. Seeing the luminous golden Tiffany glass dome presiding above the Taft lobby is a pretty good prize, too.

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Later, the audience is walked back to the Shubert where, after a fifteen-minute intermission, they get to sit in the theater’s plush red seats like they normally would. (It’s here that the play’s musical side really takes flight, powered by strong vocal performances and a very strong pit band, plus great tap dance performances.) Even at this point, Seen does plenty to be different, placing actors in aisles and balconies typically reserved for audience while relentlessly inside-joking about the dramatic arts and their practitioners, a.k.a. themselves.

Taking a meta approach is ABUT’s signature move, honed for the past several years staging what it calls “site-specific” theater—plays inspired by and performed in the settings where compelling stories once played out in real life. You can imagine how the chance to do a show on and in the Shubert, which premiered hundreds of plays including Broadway-destined legends like Oklahoma!, A Streetcar Named Desire and The Sound of Music, would dial ambitions up even further.

And so it has. Normally working with about 30 people, Rachel Alderman, ABUT founding member, says Seen Change! has about 70 people involved—writers, directors, producers, managers, actors, musicians, techies and other crew, working to compose “a very large puzzle with a lot of time and effort.”

They’re theater folk celebrating the Shubert Theater by putting on a theater show about theater folk putting on a theater show, and the only way to really understand what that means is to head to the theater.

Seen Change!
by A Broken Umbrella Theatre at the Shubert
247 College St, New Haven (map)
(203) 562-5666

Written by Dan Mims and Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Lisa Daly and Ian Dunn.

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