Davis Robinson started out to make a show about social media and its isolating effects, but that idea just didn’t work for the Beau Jest Moving Theatre.
“In the end it just felt boring, because physically it’s not very interesting — the actual act of going down the rabbit hole into your phone,” Robinson says with a laugh. “It wasn’t very dynamic, put it that way.”
The troupe’s style is a highly physical blend of comedy and movement, leavened with the poetic and the fantastic. So they had to think deeper on the topics of isolation and community, “and what snapped into focus for us was the idea of an apartment building,” he says.
Specifically, he was inspired by the Brattle Arms, at 60 Brattle St. in Cambridge, with its name in distinctive neon script over the entrance, a couple of steps down from the sidewalk.
“To me, there’s something kind of romantic and a little lurid and a little Hitchcock about that prewar era of apartment buildings,” says Robinson, Beau Jest’s artistic director. “And I thought, oh, wow, we could go into something film noir.”
The result was “Apt. 4D,” directed by Robinson and running through June 21 at Charlestown Working Theater.
“You always see those lights on at night, and you wonder who’s in that apartment and what’s going on, and there’s all these tenants right next to each other, and none of them know what the other’s doing, but they’re all a little curious,” Robinson says.
The building became a metaphor that encompassed both the safety and security of the everyday and the fear and paranoia that isolation can engender. After months of movement experiments and a group-devising process that defies easy explanation if you’re not in the room, they came up with a story about three residents of the fictional “Franklin Arms” and how their lives change when a mystery woman moves in among them. It comes complete with some movie soundtrack music and their own noir dialogue.
“She is obsessed with noir, and lives in a noir style, but you don’t know, is this all happening in her head, or is she like this noir vortex that pulls in the rest of us?” Robinson says.
It’s about “how all these small events and mysteries can add up to a life-changing moment,” says artistic director Jennifer Johnson of the Charlestown Working Theater, which is presenting the show.
In any case, Robinson says, the noir vocabulary of car chases and guns and smoking and drinking and suspicious desk clerks is “a lot more exciting than playing Angry Birds.”
This is the 30th anniversary production for Beau Jest. Robinson and actress Lisa Tucker, who are both in the “4D” cast, have been there since the beginning. “There’s a collaboration there that is pretty rare these days,” he says. “Find any group of actors that has been together that long. We’re glad we are still moving.”
The group produces a new show every couple of years, a pattern influenced by everything from their intentionally long production cycle to Robinson’s teaching schedule. The other two actors in the play, Kathleen Lewis and Robin Smith, have performed with the loose-knit group of performers and designers for more than five years.
Back in 1984, when Robinson was teaching acting and movement at Emerson College, “I knew I wanted to create a company that used movement as the main tool to create the world we were going to be in.” Tucker was among his former students who joined. Since 1999 Robinson has taught at Bowdoin College in Maine, where Lewis and Smith were among his students.
“Apt. 4D” has been in development for more than a year and will feature the cast of four on a relatively bare stage. It’s the first wholly-from-scratch piece devised by the group in more than a decade.
“There’s something about making an original show from scratch that really comes out of the actors you’re working with,” Robinson says. “It’s just a different layer of reward for the actors and the audience.
“It’s more like a string quartet,” he says. “You’ve got four people who’ve worked together for a long time, and they really understand each other’s signals.”
After some larger productions, including adaptations of two later works by Tennessee Williams, Robinson wanted to get the company back to its roots, with a small cast and minimal props and sets, “shrinking it down to what they do best, how they started,” says Charlestown’s Johnson.
In this case that means sets and props consisting of . . . a bench. Aside from the aesthetic impact of this minimalist approach, it also means “we can tour it really easily,” Robinson says. (Beau Jest is booked July 11-13 for the Ko Festival of Performance in Amherst.)
“I have loved Beau Jest for a really long time,” says Johnson. “I think for a long time in Boston they were the only ensemble-based theater and physical-based theater, and that to me was really interesting. Very untraditional work, but very funny and very committed.”
Johnson is a fan going back to the acclaimed “Krazy Kat” and other shows when the company performed at the New Ehrlich Theatre and the Piano Factory in the South End. Charlestown has presented several Beau Jest shows since 2009, and Johnson is planning a 30th birthday party with cupcakes for the troupe and audience after Friday night’s show.
“They have a tradition of really utilizing a unique brand of physicality” for each show, Johnson says. For “Krazy Kat,” that meant “a really specific, slapsticky, sort of Buster Keaton-type” comedy; for Williams’s creepy “The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame LeMonde,” they had a character who appeared to swing across the stage by hooks hanging from the ceiling.
This time, Robinson says, they’re using a kind of physical expressionism with simple and identifiable emotions: “We watch ‘Double Indemnity,’ and we think about what makes it noir stylistically, with heightened melodrama and playing with diagonals and jagged, contrasting light.”
“Their physicality is really interesting to me, the way they incorporate it,” Johnson says, “not as an additional element, but really as a foundational part of developing a piece.”
New leadership in Salem
Salem Theatre Company will introduce its new artistic director, Matthew Gray, at an oceanfront fund-raiser on Thursday. Salem resident Gray is a director, actor, and sound designer as well as an assistant professor of theater at Northeastern University. He takes over from John Fogle, who retired at the end of May after five seasons as artistic director. “We were drawn immediately to Matt’s collaborative attitude, passion and energy,” board president Norene Gachignard said in the announcement.
Gray will direct all five shows in the theater’s 2014-15 season, beginning with an adaptation of the real Salem witch trial transcripts — working title: “The Witch Trials” — Sept. 25-Oct. 18, followed by “Under Milk Wood,” “Crime and Punishment,” “Twelfth Night,” and, pending availability, “Where the Wild Things Are.”
The benefit event is set for 6 p.m. Thursday at a private home on Winter Island Road in Salem. More information and $40 advance tickets are available at www.salemtheatre.com. Tickets at the door are $50. The price includes dinner and beverages.
Joel Brown can be reached at email@example.com.