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February 4, 2009

Theater Review: ‘Elevator Plays 3’ is more up than down

Specific Gravity Ensemble continues to offer unconventional theater

(Specific Gravity Ensemble presents “Elevator Plays 3,” directed by Christie Baugher, Michael J. Drury, Rand Harmon, Corey Macon Long, Steven Rahe and Christopher Shiner. Continues through Feb. 22 at the Hertz Starks Building. For tickets, call 384-2743 or visit www.specificgravityensemble.com.)

Operating under an unconventional yet fixed premise — like Specific Gravity Ensemble does — can be a double-edged sword. On one side, the company freed itself from rigid parameters from its inception; on the other, it immediately set itself up for a repeated, particular challenge. Each production, as detailed by the company’s mission statement, is to be performed in “found” spaces like factories, public squares, parks, historic buildings, homes, and junkyards.

While Specific Gravity can’t quite call its latest production unprecedented — and that is, after all, the assumption under which it functions — reality must take the reins at some point. In our current economic environment, any company in the business of entertainment must find a way to lure customers’ luxury dollars.

On that note, then, Specific Gravity revisits a reliable favorite in lieu of a new production: “Elevator Plays 3,” 24 (give or take) short plays performed in the elevators of the historic Starks Building. The past two years of “Elevator Plays” proved quite successful for the company, and while there are still problems that plague this production, this year’s is much more cohesive than previous versions.

The gimmick is that the plays unfold as audience members ride, with the actors, up and down in the four cars. The mechanics of such an operation seem exhausting, but it’s a well-oiled machine. The deft cast moves precisely, and artistic director Rand Harmon and stage manager Ashley Beck do a terrific job conducting traffic in and out of the elevators.

The best plays are those that acknowledge the environment of the production. “Hair of the Dog” by Scott Tobin, “While-You-Wait” by Seth Christenfeld, and Christie Baugher’s duo “Elevatorus Rex” and “Alas Dear Otis” (riffs on “Oedipus Rex” and “Hamlet,” respectively) all cleverly and effectively manipulate the space constraints.

That’s not to say all the other pieces fail. Barb Harmon’s trilogy of “Barbie” vignettes works, mostly because of Anna Saltsgaver’s spot-on characterization, but also because it varies on a theme. Likewise, “Wonder Girl Gets Her Man” by John Cosper, and “Unhappy Meal at the BK Lounge” by Christie Baugher, Parker Bowles and Christopher Shiner, are both continuations of plays in last year’s production. It doesn’t hurt that Shiner and Dan Canon, two of the more engaging performers, figure prominently in those pieces.

The production hits a snag when it attempts plays meant to be profound. I’m tempted to advise the inclusion of none of these at all, because as it stands, they mainly function as buzz kill. While the company might be aiming for introspection, the dramatic pieces feel too invasive in such a small space, and the night I attended, the air in the elevator turned awkward and uncomfortable during each.

The other issue that nags is the dead time audience members spend waiting to ride certain cars, but that just might have to be accepted as a byproduct of an unorthodox theatrical experience. For those willing to sacrifice a little comfort for novelty, let’s hope Specific Gravity stays true to its goal.