Eugene Weekly : Theater : 7.31.08

It’s Getting Hot in Here
Young theater company strips down disease and desire in Beirut
By Anna Grace

Benjamin Newman and Tara Wibrew in Beirut. Photo Michael Brinkerhoff

Young, purposeful and passionate, the founding members of Trial by Fire TheatreWorks are bringing New York attitude to Eugene, and their Emerald City roots to the Big Apple. With a base on each coast, this tiny new theater company is blending the best of both worlds into their premiere production, Alan Browne’s in-your-face commentary on AIDS, Beirut. Hard-hitting drama amidst a summer of musicals? Small-town theater kids running shows Off Broadway? Old friends and an unwavering belief in the power of live theater work these contradictions in an intense production.

Community and Collaboration

Trial by Fire TheatreWorks is a collaboration of young artists interested in mixing up performance mediums to present edgy, thought-provoking work. Not-yet-30-year-old artistic director Benjamin Newman believes that if a theater company can start with a community of passionate artists, live theater can be a ritual for both actors and audiences to engage in openness. The roots of some company members trace back to freshman year in Joe Zingo’s drama class at South Eugene High School. Although some members may not share 15 years of memories, throughout the company there is a feeling of kinship. Tight community, Newman believes, will lead to greater trust and honest, challenging collaboration.

Beirut is the company’s first endeavor. Written in 1987, the play takes place in the near future as an unnamed disease ravages the country. America has become a fascist state where sex is outlawed and people are sent to jail for being provocative. “Beirut” refers to a section of New York City where “Positives” are quarantined, awaiting a cure or the slow death of the disease. Communicable disease is a backdrop for the real story ­ that of two people, one Positive, one not, desperate for true human connection.

A Difficult Play

Raw sexual content, violence against women and angry politics make Beirut an uncomfortable show to watch and difficult to stage. Director Leslie Murray has made a point of not pulling back from the shock value, but rather fleshing it out to honor the intent of the playwright, even when it conflicts with her own values. With Murray giving her actors direction such as “take a longer moment with her ass,” it helps to have comfort levels running high. It is the strongest sense of community among company members that has allowed them to build such a tough play. 

For thoughtful Newman to play an angry, diseased misogynist, he channeled his own experience with near crippling depression. His anger at the limitations imposed by disease and frustration as others take it lightly are evident in his work on stage. Tara Wibrew, a strong and confident young woman, is unused to publicly stripping down to her undergarments and begging for a man’s attention. To further explore issues of body image and the line between empowered sexuality and objectification, Wibrew and other cast members took a field trip to a strip club. The play walks a thin line between sex and violence. An emphasis on trust and communication have created a safe rehearsal space for Newman and Wibrew, so that when the play opens they can give it all the anger, frustration and sexuality the script calls for.

The Future

This fall most of the company will reconvene in New York, where several members are attending the NYU Tisch School of the Arts in theater. Adding three “offs” to predicate their Broadway, they will be producing Newman’s original work, The Camel’s Back. With Trial by Fire’s characteristic embrace of contradiction, the play has stereotypical B-grade action heroes meditating on death and humanity. Think Armageddon with philosophy and a tragic ending. With unabashed, down-home collaborative values guiding them as they hit the fierce theater scene in New York, these young artists are likely to pull off anything they put their collective minds to. ew

Beirut opens at 8 pm Wednesday, Aug. 6, at LCC’s Blue Door Theater and continues through Aug. 15. $5 general admission.



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