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'Death of a Salesman' and the birth of an unconventional stage

For Arthur Miller-inspired theater piece ‘This Great Country,' Fusebox Festival finds a winning location in a Central Austin bingo parlor

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

The dozen or so people at a rehearsal recently in a cavernous unfinished room off the Lucky Lady Bingo parlor make for an eclectic theater ensemble.

Some are seasoned Austin acting talents like Lowell Bartholomee and Lana Dietrich. Others have varying degrees of theater experience — and day jobs. One is an instructor at Austin Community College. Another is a retired preacher. And there several school-aged children too.

Altogether there are 17 performers representing a varied demographic in "This Great Country," a new theater piece conceived of by Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone of the New York-based company called 600 Highway Men.

"This Great Country" is a commission from the Fusebox Festival, the sprawling 12-day performance art happening that runs through May 6.

Five of the 17 performers will speak the lines of Willy Loman, the iconic title character of Arthur Miller's classic play "Death of a Salesman."

Browde and Silverstone mined Miller's script to create their own version, literally deconstructing the work into a fresh, contemporary take on the tale of American middle-class ambition thwarted by disappointment and mediocrity.

But mostly — as they have with other productions — Silverstone and Browde shaped their show to fit a very specific time and place.

"It's a good moment in this country to hear this story again," says Silverstone, a native Austinite who has lived and worked in New York for the past 15 years. "Miller's story still has so much resonance."

After combing the city a few months ago, the couple (they are married) found the Lucky Lady, an enormous former supermarket on the Interstate 35 frontage road that's been everything from a Travis County storage facility to headquarters for the Barack Obama presidential campaign.

Currently, the building is painted bright pink and is home to a Mexican restaurant and a vast bingo parlor. Everything about the 4,000-square-foot bingo hall as a place where chance might just lead to dreams come true seemed perfect for a reconsidered "Death of a Salesman."

"Once we saw the place, we just knew we had to use it," says Silverstone. "It has great resonance."

In "This Great Country" characters are voiced by the multiple actors of all ages, the dialogue has been tweaked to add contemporary references, actors are encouraged to use their natural speaking voice, there are no props, there is little in the way of formal costumes and the scenes are interspersed with moments of simple yet emotionally charged choreographed movement.

There will be no special multimedia effects either — actors and audience will share the bingo parlor's washed-out lighting. (The unconventional show times are set to not interfere with the bingo parlor's regular functions.)

"We're trying to wake up the (theatrical) event," Silverstone says. "We want to make a space for the audience to have a visceral engagement."

"But mostly we wanted to make a piece that looked and felt like Austin."

Contact Jeanne Claire van Ryzin at 445-3699

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