Director Connor Scully reached up and scratched his head. “You know, I think my ideal audience would be someone who doesn’t know theater—somebody who hates theater, even.” His sentiments echo those of the cast and crew of One in Four, a comedy presented by the Firehouse Theater in Richmond at the end of last month. Produced by the experimental performing arts collective Nu Puppis and co-directed by Scully and Mahlon Raoufi, the play is as inventive as it is hilarious. Dedicated to bringing new ideas and approaches to comedic theater, this collection of misfits defines what it means to think outside of the box.
When playwright Levi Meerovich heard that one in four individuals believe they have witnessed a UFO sighting or encountered alien life here on earth, he decided it was the perfect kind of statistic to wrap a good yarn around. The result: One in Four. The story follows Sid (played by Dixon Caswell), an alien from a faraway planet that has come to Earth to survey humans, their culture, and discover the best way to attempt an alien invasion. Sid’s one job is to keep a solid cover and ensure the natives assume he is an average human, but his plans are threatened by his three new roommates who, ironically enough, happen to all be in the exact same situation.
Last year, Meerovich brought the play to Nu Puppis, a small theater company comprised of recent VCU theater graduates who had a lot in common with the play’s main characters. While the theater company is named after a star—and comically aims to be the first theater company in space—the members of Nu Puppis are not aliens. At least, not in the classic sense. Rather, they are aliens to the theater community, turning away from the traditional way of doing things on stage to highlight their audience’s needs and tell a narrative in a natural light.
Nu Puppis was formed as a senior project at VCU and continued on after the founding member’s graduation. These college roots contribute to the collective’s vibe on stage. They not only hold a common disdain for more traditional elements of theater, but also a mission to change the perception of what happens on stage. Many members of Nu Puppis claimed they walked away from VCU with ideas of what is and isn’t addressed in the theater community. As Caswell explained, “It’s easier to work together because all of our processes came from the same place. We have a collective notion of what is annoying, we’re all frustrated with the same things.”
With the combination of Meerovich’s writing and Nu Puppis’s unconventional approach to stagecraft, One in Four was headed for success, and success it got. In its first run last July, the play received a five-star rating in D.C. at the 2017 Capital Fringe Festival presented by Capital Fringe. This positive critical response delighted those involved with the production. “When a critic gets it, we did our job and it’s great,” said Jess Rawls, who plays Carrie. “It was surprising, but reassuring.”
Sid is the star of One in Four, and he constantly reminds the audience of this through his mission reports, going out of his way to verbalize exactly what he is thinking. Keeping the audience in the loop isn’t a trait specific to Sid, however, as each character telegraphs their internal dialogue in one way or another.
The play isn’t restricted to the stage, either, as the narrative envelops the entire theater. The cast’s interactions with the audience dares you to drop your guard, and even begs for participation at times. Every few minutes, Sid would run up the aisle to meet a new roommate or a roommate would run off to explore the human world.
The play strives to be more than just audience participation and alien humor. In the final scene, Sid shares his feelings that humanity is like a canoe and “you just gotta paddle down the water.” Go with the flow. Just keep paddling. I want to think that this is the deeper meaning to the play’s narrative, a great philosophical truth we can all apply to our lives, but One in Four works even if you deny it an intentional message. However you interpret it, this play is about the experience of sharing a joyous moment with those around you.
In our initial interview, Rawls emphasised one thing: that this play was meant for the enjoyment of the audience—that their job as performers is to entertain and maybe change how the audience feels theater can be approached. In this respect, One in Four achieves what it set out to do. It is the rare play that actively engages the audience and creates an opportunity for a relatable, unexpected comedic experience, all while challenging the traditional perception of theater. Not bad for a bunch of aliens.
Follow the interstellar hijinks of Nu Puppis at facebook.com/NuPuppis.
Photography by Bill Sigafoos