StageStruck: Theater Ecology

So I’m at A.P.E. Gallery on Northampton’s Main Street a week or so ago, and I run into Sabrina Hamilton. She’s artistic director of Ko Theater Works, a 22-year-old Valley-based company that champions alternative theater. We’re both here to see Caveman, the latest work by another long-running cutting-edge group, No Theater, before it heads to New York next month.

No is the lifetime project of Roy Faudree and Sheena See. The couple and the company are peripatetic by intention—based in Northampton but having “no theater” to call home or tie them down. A hallmark of their work, in fact, has been their exploration of varied spaces, including A.P.E.’s for this production.

There’s a lot going on here as people gather for the performance. Film images, courtesy of the cinephile duo known as Bell & Howl, play on the walls. At the back of the long, spare gallery there’s a retrospective exhibit of No Theater’s nearly 40-year history, represented in posters, photos, scripts and press clippings, including a review in the Advocate from the late 1970s declaring that No Theater “is like no theater you’ve ever seen.”

All this history gets Hamilton and me talking about what she calls the “theater ecology” of this remarkable area. She’s on the board of the Network of Ensemble Theaters, a national organization, and tells me there’s a denser cluster of NET members around here than almost anywhere else in the country. That density fosters a sense of common cause and complementary aesthetics that sparks cooperation and collaboration, even as groups find themselves competing for the ever-shrinking pot of public and private funding.

One example of that cross-fertilization is on show right here, in No’s retrospective, which attests to decades of connection with local artists and arts organizations. Another example is A.P.E. itself, primarily a visual art gallery which frequently serves as a performance space in venue-starved Northampton.

Richard Maxwell’s Caveman is a short, elliptical slice of contemporary angst that takes its theme from its title. The exchanges among the three characters, beautifully played by Faudree, See and Tom Mahnken, aren’t exactly grunts, but they’re short and to the point, or short on effective communication, or both. It’s hard to call the piece a love triangle, though it does center on an affectless marriage momentarily disturbed by an interloper, because love is so squashed and hidden here. In fact, the characters are so emotionally inarticulate that when a real feeling rises to the surface, they sing: harshly, almost tonelessly, but with a poignant simplicity.

No Theater’s inventive use of space is evident in the staging of Caveman at A.P.E. In a workshop showing two years ago, the audience looked into the gallery’s “backstage” area, where the mini-kitchen was part of the set. The current version is backed into another corner of the gallery and set against a partial wall of steel framing beams: the house as skeleton.

In a way, Hamilton and I agree, this mother-of-invention approach to staging might be a metaphor for theater in the Valley: groups with limited resources but boundless imagination insistently finding ways to create magic, and in the process, creating a vibrant performance “cluster” that is the envy of many another section of the country.•

Caveman: Feb. 28-March 2, A.P.E. Ltd. Gallery, 126 Main St., Northampton. Limited seating, reservations recommended. (413)586-5553,

Contact Chris Rohmann at

Author: Chris Rohmann

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