PITTSFIELD — If newspapers write the first draft of history, as the now-quaint aphorism holds, then just what is authored by cable TV news, gossip websites, or social media? An outline? A rough sketch? Hurried notes for a draft that never gets written?
A one-act play making its US debut at Berkshire Fringe, “33” tells the story of the ordeal faced by 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days in 2010. But it’s also about the act of storytelling itself, and its inevitable failures.
By depicting a freely fictionalized account of the episode — complete with a devilish apparition in the shape of Elvis Presley, who haunts one miner as he gradually loses his marbles — the play cheerfully participates in that failure. But it raises the question whether its own sympathetic fiction possesses more truth, after a fashion, than straight news accounts that continue to differ, years after the miners’ rescue, in their reporting of some details.
Epistemological concerns aside, what “33” offers is a fast-paced, shape-shifting drama that utilizes many of the tools now fashionable in the world of devised theater, where new pieces are created through collaborative effort and the traditional division of labor is muddied.
There’s original music performed by the actors, video projections, live images captured by an onstage camcorder, plenty of acrobatic choreography, and ironic use of pop culture — a clip from “Late Show With David Letterman” is used as a crucial framing device, eventually turning sinister as it reveals the inspiration for one of the play’s central conceits.
The show was devised by The Wardrobe Ensemble, a British troupe of theater-makers all in their 20s. They met while enrolled in an actor training program at the Bristol Old Vic theater, and there’s a sense here of the troupe emptying out its bag of technique, leaving no tumbling lesson unturned. The play crams a lot — too much, probably — into 60 overstuffed minutes. But it always feels purposeful and moves along briskly under the deft direction of troupe member Tom Brennan. One is tempted finally to just let it all fly by, and sort it out (or not) later.
This is The Wardrobe Ensemble’s second US visit, each prompted by an extended run at Berkshire Fringe, a shoestring festival that has defiantly soldiered into its 10th season. In part, “33” was created while the troupe was in residence at the festival in 2012 to perform its breakout show “Riot,” inspired by an IKEA store-opening in 2005 that spiraled out of control. Wardrobe performs both shows in repertory through Sunday. (Don’t be shy about sitting in the front row; the acoustics at the Fringe’s new location, in a former church downtown, are awful and some bits prove hard to hear.)
After changing from street clothes into blue jumpsuits onstage, seven actors proceed to embody about two-dozen characters in “33.” (At one point they hold black-and-white photographs of miners’ faces aloft, as if to underline the subjective theatricality of this history lesson.) The miners themselves never emerge as fully three-dimensional characters — there’s the one whose wife is pregnant, the one who’s going crazy, the one who speaks up for the others — and members of the press are rendered as caricature.
The actors switch between male and female roles with the slightest of wardrobe adjustments. They speak in their natural accents and use British colloquialisms. But by flatly rejecting any audience expectation for verisimilitude, Wardrobe clears the way for a direct sense of human empathy. Look at Emily Greenslade, whose wonderfully expressive face communicates a rich reserve of complicated emotion, whether portraying a miner listening to news from home or another miner’s wife, silently screaming through a smile frozen on her lips for the benefit of a TV news camera.
Oh, did I mention the religious themes of damnation and resurrection? Or the suggestion that alienated misfits found a sense of community by watching the miners’ story as televised entertainment?
The Wardrobe gang shows no shortage of energy or ideas. The pieces coalesce more often than not, as in a sequence showing the miners making a video to send up to the surface. As they huddle onstage and wave at a camcorder, the audience sees the live image projected on a wall at the rear. Both versions of the moment compete for authority. Even as we see the close-up of these faces, they recede from view, as inaccessible as ever.
“I can’t tell the difference between what I remember and what people have told me,” one miner says after being rescued. That difference, “33” suggests, is both infinite and irrelevant.