Theatrical terrorists overrun Studio Roanoke

The first thing you will see when you enter Studio Roanoke will be soldiers with guns. Dwayne Yancey has written another play. “57 Hours in the House of Culture” tells a tale of not so distant history. In October 2002, Chechen terrorists overran a theatre in Moscow. Hundreds of innocent people died during a failed rescue attempt involving poison gas, at the hands of their own government.

Playwright Dwayne Yancey says, “What happens if you went to the theatre to have a good time, and suddenly this horrible thing happened and you were caught in the middle of it. Tragedy breaks out around them.”

Studio Roanoke is an intimate setting and I can’t think of a better place in Roanoke for this show, for this reason. Yancey said, “We will attempt to make you feel that you were there. This is dark and spooky. It is not for the feint of heart. And probably unlike anything you’ve seen in the area for awhile.”

This is true; you become immersed in a tragic event, almost, a part of it. The doors are blocked by soldiers; it is only after they storm into the seating arena that ticket holders are allowed to wander in. Getting to a seat is difficult, with bodies and chairs strewn about. As the lights go down, the first dead body (Joel Gruver) arises and begins the tale. One by one the victims rise and fall again, sharing how they understand the events that took place and how the tragedy hauntingly repeats over and over. Gary Reid (Andrei) and Diane Heard (Svetlana) are dead in their seats among the living theatre goers. She is scared and confused, and he tries to calm her. They are married, and they are ghosts. Their acting is a dance together, flowing from monologue to conversation. Her performance is beautiful, reminiscing her childhood, explaining her feelings over their deaths, her panic at watching the murders repeated. His, is brilliant, bringing to life a dead man, always a good Russian, his only regret that Svetlana is no longer vibrant with living soul. Commanding presence on the stage and with the audience real and fictional, the terrorist (James Honaker) speaks of Chechen history and oppression. He demands understanding and awakening, and orders the murders of those who interrupt his siege. Fatima is a young rebel, a martyr in the making. Kelly Anglim plays this character well, snapping into drugged monotone obedience, then letting slip her own desire to live. A musician from the pit (Owen Merritt) is a haunting presence, complete with his beautiful (and well synched) violin music and sudden drops back to death upon the floor. Gruver’s depiction of a fallen usher allows narrative to carry witnesses through the tale; he is passionate and defeated at the same time. Most of the cast is on the stage at all times, either laying still in death or in active haunt. They are also in the audience, waiting for their cues, and standing guard at the lobby door. This surround sound and action atmosphere draws the non-acting audience in to an intimate experience and most interactive show I’ve seen. There were shocking moments and sad ones, with bits of humor, and all were experienced rather than simply witnessed. Panic at their moments of death is palpable in the darkness and smoky air, and then the ease of acceptance of what has come to pass as the violin plays a lullaby. It was a truly memorable experience as reality was suspended.

Director Brian O’Sullivan honored the past with this show. He is no stranger to the stage, having been involved in over 200 productions, as actor, writer, and director. Brian’s local presence is a boon to the theatre community in Roanoke.

Why tell this story? Playwright Yancey is a newspaperman (a senior editor, really) in his day job, and historic fact and happenstance are interesting to him. He gets excited about breaking news and wants to know the story, and share it. He first wrote this play in 2010 and put the finishing touches on it early this year for Studio Roanoke to consider. In a Community Conversations discussion on 101.5 The Music Place, Dwayne said, “To this day it is unclear what kind of poison gas the Russians used to knock everyone out. The fact that it took place in a theatre to me seemed to cry out for a theatrical response. A theatrical commemoration.”

Yancey literally wears many hats (I’ve known him to double his head coverings in the winter, if it’s a very cold day.) and I’m amazed at the amount of writing he does outside of his job at The Roanoke Times. He can be seen at No Shame Theatre in Roanoke on most Friday nights, either handing out scripts he’s written or manning the lights. He says, “Playwriting is not something that arrived like a bolt from the blue, but now it’s my vice on the side.”

Dwayne mostly writes one acts that are aimed at high schools for production, and most are humorous. His full length scripts tend to be more serious. He’s had 131 plays produced so far. He is from Harrisonburg, and has lived in the Roanoke area since 1982.

“Roanoke is Virginia’s theatre city. It’s on the national map, where folks from all over the country send plays to be produced, primarily at Studio Roanoke. There’s a lot of homegrown talent here but also from all over the country. I’m not sure that folks realize what sort of cultural jewel is in their midst,” said Dwayne.

To learn more about the backstage magic of “57 Hours” and what else Dwayne is up to, check out: Dwayneyancey.wordpress.com.

“57 Hours in the House of Culture,” was written by Dwayne Yancey, and is directed by Brian O’Sullivan and features a wonderful cast. The show runs May 16-27, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; 2 p.m. Sunday matinees. $15 general admission; $12 for seniors, students and active military. Get your tickets now at www.studioroanoke.org or call the box office at 540-343-3054.

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