How much do you want to pay for a ticket to the theater? That’s the first query that confronts those interested in the Foundry Theatre’s How Much Is Enough? Our Values in Question, now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Via an unusual pricing initiative, attendees decide whether they would like to fork over $15, $30, or $60 for their seat. However, there are additional costs. Audience members contribute their attention, their focus, two hours of their time, all the loose change in their purses and pockets. They also provide much of the script, supplying answers regarding “how to live a life of value.”
Created by the Foundry’s artistic director, Melanie Joseph, and Texan playwright Kirk Lynn, this play is a series of conversations with more or less willing spectators centered around ethical and economic issues. Throughout the evening, the cast of three—Noel Joseph Allain, Mia Katigbak, and Carl Hancock Rux—pluck people from the cabaret tables at which they are seated and pose a series of questions on topics ranging from birth to work to love to death. “Do you ever pray?” Katigbak asks a man in a blue button-down shirt. “Tell me a song you like to slow dance to,” demands Rux of a frowning woman with braided hair. As the performers conduct their interviews, a “Googler” asks similar queries of a computer, with the answers projected live.
The Foundry has a long and admirable history of exploring social issues, from The Provenance of Beauty, a lyrical bus tour of the South Bronx, to Open House, set in various private apartments, to the very recent FUREE in Pins & Needles, a political musical staged at the Irondale Center. But the company rarely programs shows that trumpet their political engagement as blatantly as this one. The goals of How Much are noble: to promote introspection, to foster community, to interrogate received wisdom. Yet its execution is at once achingly sincere and oddly disingenuous, somewhat undoing those aims.
While audience members are expected to answer honestly and spontaneously, the actors aren’t. They work from a rehearsed script and come before the crowd having adopted fictional personae and names: Carlo, Marissa, Freddie. These characters assure us that there are no wrong answers. Yet their scripted meditations and their tendency to murmur an approving “hmmm” whenever respondents utter a certain sort of platitude encourage drearily sincere responses. Perhaps the most compelling moments were the ones in which audience members fought this trend. Like the woman in a striped dress who was asked, “What’s one think it takes to have a good birth?’ “Drugs,” she responded.
Like Lush Valley, which played at Here earlier this year, How Much feels too earnest and too focus-grouped to provide a revelatory experience either aesthetically or politically. However, it seems to have attracted a fairly like-minded crowd, many of whom seem willing, even eager, to participate. And that’s a very good thing. Especially as it keeps spectators from asking themselves a dangerous question: How else might I have spent my evening?