Fringeworthy

Hip Shot: Cry of the Mountain

The Shop at Fort Fringe, 607 New York Ave. NW

Remaining Performances:

Friday, July 15 at 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, July 16 at 4:30 p.m.
Saturday, July 23 at 8 p.m.

They say: "One woman, thirteen characters. Real stories, verbatim, from America's coal fields in West Virginia and Kentucky. A documentary play about Mountaintop Removal in Appalachia. Coal Miners, Mining Executives, Mountaineers, Hillbillies and Protesters. Bluegrass music and cookies at every show."

Ryan’s Take: All is not well in Appalachia. Homes are being destroyed. Children are ill. The mountains are crying. Adelind Horan wants it to stop. Horan is a practitioner of verbatim theater, the increasingly popular technique in which a script is composed entirely of interview material, documented footage, and other primary sources. She has crafted Cry of the Mountain out of interviews she conducted doing clean-up work in West Virginia and Kentucky. Audiences willing to invest a little time and attention to an important issue will find a lot to like about Horan’s work.

The prime target here is Big Coal—specifically, the contemporary mining technique of mountaintop removal, which involves blowing the hell out of the top of a mountain and vacuuming up all the energy-producing rocks. My description may not be entirely accurate. Horan doesn’t do a particularly good job of going into the details of the process. She’s primarily interested in its after-effects: destroyed ecosystems, illness, long-term economic stagnation.

We’re in the didactic realm here. Horan makes her political sympathies toward the poor residents of Appalachia and their activist allies clear. But Horan isn’t entirely tone-deaf to the difficulties facing a country facing two short-term choices: keep destroying our own homeland or keep fighting over oil in the Persian Gulf. Something has got to keep those Hummers running, after all. Horan and her subjects all seem to know that progress toward a just, carbon-neutral world is long and made difficult by human desire for ease and comfort. That’s what Big Coal is banking on.

Horan embodies 12 interview subjects, ranging from dirt-poor activists to, well, mostly other other kinds of activists. Most are local, some are helpful carpetbaggers. A mildly stoned United Mountain Defense staffer named Matt is a highlight, with his story of an arrest following his organization’s investigation of a chemical spill. Matt’s section features a little bit of the audience interaction that seems to be especially prevalent at this year’s Fringe. I’m a fan.

Like any good journalist, Horan attempts to offer the viewpoint of the other side. From a stagecraft point of view, this leads to some questionable characterizations. Horan portrays those she sees as collaborating with, or even enabling, Big Coal with much less humanity than those with whom she agrees. A researcher interested more in bee population than mountaintop removal comes across as shortsighted. A Coal Company CEO seems more lizard than man. But this is war, right? The emperor has no clothes! Down with The Man, power to The People! Horan’s shenanigans are all in the name of a good cause.

The whole show rests on Horan’s charisma as a performer, and for the most part she pulls it off nicely. Her excellent dialect work is a highlight, effortlessly swaying between regions of Appalachia and elsewhere when needed. I wish she had spent equal amounts of time working on the physical performances. One elderly gentleman, in particular, seems to be forever reaching to pick an invisible apple.

There are some great insights into economic warfare perpetrated against the Appalachian poor, who are trapped in a one-industry monoculture while the world around them becomes increasingly globalized and diverse. It’s all very well-meaning and sometimes engaging, but Cry of the Mountain lacks some essential heat and drama that would more easily pull the audience in to the large-scale tragedy Horan witnessed. I found myself intellectually engaged, but my blood was never pumping as much I imagine Horan wants.

The theatercraft gains in technique and style as the night goes on, until Horan is swiftly and deftly jumping between her subjects. (Early sections feel much less fleshed out, and the transitions between drag.) But most importantly, Horan’s comfort with the material grows, and the whole thing becomes a lot more engaging. Bud Branch, owner of one of the world’s more righteous beards, accompanies the proceedings nicely on equally righteous banjo. At some point in the development of Cry, Horan clearly learned that a fist full of cookies helps the medicine go down.

See it if: You’re looking for an engaging, cerebral solo performance and/or have an interest in environmental issues.

Skip it if: You enjoyed The Mothman Prophecies for the scenery.

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