Albee Adrift

The Charenton Theater Company strives for new (park) benchmarks.

The Zoo Story Steamship William G. Mather (1001 East Ninth Street Pier) 7 p.m. Friday, July 20, and Saturday, July 21



The mild-Mathered stars of The Zoo Story.
The mild-Mathered stars of The Zoo Story.
Outdoor theater is not a new concept, but for the fledgling Charenton Theater Company, which artistic director James Mango describes as a "small, homeless theater," holding performances at city park benches is practically a necessity.

Charenton's current production, which will be staged outside at various locations through August 18, is Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, a dark, one-act drama with a cast of two, set on a park bench. The action centers around a discussion between two strangers, Jerry and Peter. Their humorous conversation, about Jerry's visit to the zoo, sheds light on the depth of Jerry's loneliness and how close Peter -- like all of us -- is to the same despair.

"We wanted to do The Zoo Story because it's just a great play," says director Greg Vovos, echoing the Charenton mission statement's focus on producing plays that aren't quite old enough to be classics, yet are too old to be cutting-edge. "And the most exciting way to do the production would be to take it outdoors."

While most of the play's run will indeed be on park benches ("We're adding a garbage can as well," Vovos says), this week's performance takes place aboard the Steamship William G. Mather, which, to Mango, is in keeping with the theater's goals.

"We want to break the molds as to where theater should be done," he says, noting that Charenton's last production ran at an art gallery. "There are so many negative perspectives of people going to the theater -- it's something your wife drags you to. We're breaking the mold of people's perspective of theater to get them to come out and experience it new again."

But while Mango and Vovos agree that The Zoo Story is an accessible play, Albee's dark musings on the human condition may challenge Charenton audiences -- which could be composed largely of passersby out for a stroll.

"It's pretty brutal," Mango admits. "You can't escape the raw humanity and the fact that it's about the relationships which we all struggle with and we all fail at. There's no one this play can't affect."

Vovos is more philosophical in his defense. "It's the theater's job to investigate the human condition and the human spirit," he says. "Once the theater begins to back down from that, then there really is no point, because people can just watch TV."

Vovos worries more that his actors may struggle to stay in tune with the drama at hand -- and not the birds, cars, and Frisbee players in the vicinity. Rehearsals were held in a "very cramped, cabin kind of space," so that the actors could zero in on each other. But Vovos fears outdoor disturbances could still disrupt things.

"My biggest concern is sound," he says. "Some of the most important moments of the play could be taken away by a siren or 15 motorcycles driving by at one time."

Which leads Vovos to contemplate one of Albee's very themes in The Zoo Story: "You never know who's going to show up at the park."

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