On some occasions, a play calls out to be staged somewhere other than a theater. For example, last year, a production of William Inge's "Bus Stop," which is set in a diner, was performed in one in Lee's Summit. This weekend, an Arthur Miller one-act about a man shopping for intimate apparel for his mistress will be mounted in a Crossroads boutique that specializes in that kind of women's wear.
Heidi Van is the curator of the Fishtank, a performance space in the Crossroads Arts district that likes to push the theatrical envelope.
Early on, the vintage thriller Sorry Wrong Number was staged not inside the building but within its deep windows, while the audience sat on folding chairs in the street. Opening this weekend is the Arthur Miller one-act play Elegy for a Lady, which is set in a women's clothing store. Something unexpected happened when Van consulted with local artist Peregrine Honig, who also happens to co-own Birdies, a lingerie shop within a stone's throw of the Fishtank.
"Last year I ordered the script and was telling Peregrine about it," Van recalls, "And before I even finished the conversation she was, ‘We should do it in Birdies!' Because it was set in a woman’s boutique and I was going to ask her to help me design the set at the Fishtank but that never got out. She just said, 'Why don’t you do it at Birdies?'"
"It makes sense," Honig adds. "It’s a story about a man who walks into some intimate women’s store to buy a garment for his dying mistress. And so when Heidi asked me if I’d be interested in helping her with the set, it was a no-brainer for me. It’s an intimate space for an intimate play."
The women discuss the show poised upon the raised platform that sets off the shop's dressing rooms, and the audience will either sit there, on a window ledge, or on furniture - including an old-timey fainting couch - in the first of two rooms one enters off of 18th Street. Honig works in a variety of media yet says theater feels foreign to her. Rather, it is her and co-owner Danielle Meister's boutique experience that's helping Van realize her theatrical vision.
"It was exciting for me to get to put my input while watching Heidi start her process," Honig says, "And saying, 'Well, it’s more likely that this would happen.’ Because in this play, I’m almost her or Danielle is almost her because we KNOW that customer who comes in and says, 'Oh, I have a really weird question for you’. But this store is in its eleventh year and no question is weird enough.
"The thing that makes it so strange is that it’s such an emotional question and such an abstract question. And in terms of giving yourself to the space, I’m really excited to see how this play works in Birdies.
Points of View
As small as Birdies is, Heidi Van points out that it's laid out in such a way that, depending on where audience members end up sitting, they'll experience the show in different ways.
"In here, they’ll be with the proprietress if she’s standing behind the counter," Van explains. "So these people sitting in the dressing room are with her. The people on the couch see his journey from coming in. So they have more information than these people in here. They don’t see the way he enters the space until he comes into their viewpoint.
"So that’s the exciting thing about putting theater in a non–conventional location and about the physical theater itself – the actions and the location of the actor in the space defines the story."
Peregrine Honig adds that the play speaks for all of those who spend a third of their day with customers or co-workers they may not ever really know.
"It’s a great play because first of all it’s beautifully written," she says. "It ebbs and flows from the surreal to the fantastic to the mundane, like a lot of Arthur Miller’s plays, and we’ve all dealt with somebody at our place of work where you just can’t tell what turn it’s going to take. And it’s an interesting play because of that."
Co-starring Bob Paisley as the customer, Elegy for a Lady's Birdies performances follow a few previews at the Fishtank and appeared earlier this month in a more traditional staging at the American Dreams Theatre Festival in Uppsala, Sweden.