When Cripple Creek Theatre Company coproduced the original work The Future is a Fancyland Place, members moved enough dirt and sod into the theater space at the AllWays Lounge and Theatre to create a farmhouse's front yard and backyard in a long configuration that left the audience watching the play from two sides, like bleachers at a football game. As the company prepared the outdoor space at the Truck Farm, where it's presenting the original work Possum Kingdom, it had to move earth again.
"We like going into a new space and cleaning it up and making it a performable venue," says Cripple Creek co-founder Andrew Vaught. "That's a skill we've developed. We're marketing ourselves as landscapers. ... But (AllWays manager) Dennis (Monn) was not happy about the dirt."
The Truck Farm is a large clearing within a residential block bordering St. Claude Avenue, and it's the home of the annual Chaz Fest music festival. For Possum Kingdom, Cripple Creek has cleared out a grove that has a small shack, which serves as a character's home in the play, and there's a run of trees that shapes a narrow but deep performance space. They hauled out bags and bags of leaves and branches to use the space, but it's a perfect setting for a play about swamp dwellers who live detached from the forces that control their livelihood.
"It's exponentially harder to do an outdoor show," Vaught says. "It fits so well in this space, because you have a long and narrow playing area. You have a house there and a secluded grove. You have a feeling of apart. These people exist apart from what's happening above them."
Possum Kingdom was written by Vaught, who also plays Inman, an intermediary who travels between the swamp and "upriver." The motley and eccentric bayou dwellers eke out an existence by collecting a barely described substance called Brosia from trees, creatures and other natural elements of their environment. Inman carts their scrapings up the river and returns with payment, but always on the nebulous other side's rates and terms.
With their meager and ever-more-scarce earnings, they pursue their interests and dreams. Alder (Dylan Hunter) accepts some of his payment in nails, which he uses to finish building his home. Marjorie (Kate Kuen) wants some of her payments made in notebooks, which she uses to record a diary, which also is a brief history of their existence. Many of them accept canned food and beer as well.
While they struggle with the falling value of Brosia, or their inability to demand a better price from remote buyers, they compete with possums to collect the raw material. Far from small, harmless marsupials, these possums are large and menacing.
Like Vaught's other works produced by Cripple Creek, it's full of offbeat characters, its own absurd wisdom and vernacular, and strains of darkness and humor. But Possum Kingdom also echoes recent events.
"I wrote the first draft after the BP spill," Vaught says. "There was this feeling of separation from everything that was going on in the rest of the country; this feeling of bewilderment of who was in charge of what exactly — fallout from people we had never seen and who we would never see and how that affected us so badly."
The distant forces at work in Possum Kingdom remain obscure. The drama focuses on the little band of Brosia hunters and their efforts both competing and cooperating with each other. It's not an allegory, even if it invokes familiar issues, and it's also not realistic in terms of some of the swamp creatures and the Brosia economy.
Since its founding eight years ago, many of Cripple Creek's productions have reflected timely issues, sometimes fortuitously. When the company produced Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector General in 2008, New Orleans created an Inspector General position, and Robert Cerasoli, the first Inspector General, made cameos in Thursday productions of the show and participated in audience talkbacks. Other productions have touched on environmental issues (The Shaker Chair), social issues and gentrification (Clybourne Park) and labor issues (Waiting for Lefty). Vaught notes that it has been easier to draw audiences to comedies than some serious dramas.
"In our second year, we opened with Bury the Dead," Vaught says. "I think that would be more popular now with the zombie craze. But it's about soldiers who come back to life and refuse to be buried until the war is over. It didn't really gel with a lot of people."
Cripple Creek also has presented absurd and riotous shows, including Carnival time presentations of Alfred Jarry's Ubu series, about a foolish, amoral king. It also cooperated with Southern Rep and other theater companies to produce The Lily's Revenge, a five-hour spectacle of theater, dance, film and art about a flower's attempt to become human and win a bride.
Cripple Creek has presented works at a wide array of venues, including many nontheater spaces. It will coordinate with Alex McMurray and the Valparaiso Men's Chorus on a production of Dylan Thomas' radio drama Under Milk Wood at the Saturn Bar in December. The company had not originally intended to present Possum Kingdom outdoors, and in fact, the first location it settled on was for a second run at Bayou Playhouse in Lockport, La. That is the first step in the company's next phase of development — beginning to take productions on tour.