It definitely says “COMMUNITY THEATER” on the building at 405 Main St., North Little Rock, but Argenta Community Theater’s been able to mobilize talent and resources that allow it to behave, in some ways, like a professional playhouse. For 10 years now, the Argenta Arts District company has been programming ambitious ensemble productions like “Newsies” and original works like “During Wind And Rain,” and building up a fiercely dedicated community of partners along the way. That decade of work, and the fortitude of the network it’s built, was pretty evident on its stage last night.
With a tiny live orchestra, a shapeshifting set and a robust cast of over 30 actors, ACT took on the story from E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel “Ragtime,” adapted for the stage in 1996. It’s set nearly a century earlier, in 1906, and tackles ideas about American exceptionalism, racism and class warfare through three parallel settings: Harlem, New Rochelle and the tenements of the Lower East Side. That is to say, it all takes place in New York, but New York can look like a myriad of emotional/economic landscapes, depending on who’s doing the looking.
There are real-life characters that pin “Ragtime” to its timeframe — Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, Evelyn Nesbit, J.P. Morgan. Still others, though, seemed symbolically present in ACT’s production, even though they were nowhere in the script. Malcolm X. The Rosenthals, late congregants of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Martin Luther King. Tamir Rice. It’s an intense piece of work, and the cast didn’t shy away from its darker corners: for one, a moment in which Mother (performed compellingly by Karen Q. Clark) and Younger Brother shared a dismal, knowing look when singing “Til We Reach That Day” over Sarah’s dead body: “It will happen again, and again, and again.”
Standout moments were everywhere — in Greg Robinson’s full-hearted, wildly nuanced portrayal of Tateh; in Jeremiah Herman’s charisma and gravitas as Coalhouse Walker Jr.; in the boldness and bite of Monica Clark-Robinson’s Emma Goldman; in Claire Rhodes’ breezy Evelyn Nesbit; in the magnetism and immovable dignity of Satia Spencer’s Sarah. They were in the nimble ensemble’s choreography, and in the way those movements were made to feel integral to the story, never superficial or pointless. They were in Shelly Hall’s meticulously crafted costumes. They were in the musical’s lively contingent of children, the young Piper Wallace and Walt Wenger stealing pretty much any scene they touched.
William David Brohn’s orchestration for the musical calls for 26 musicians. At ACT, a mere seven instrumentalists carved out the emotional landscapes for those three versions of New York, and elegantly so — Jackie Lamar’s slippery clarinet signalled the klezmer-tinged sounds of the Jewish tenements, Becky Goins’ syncopated keyboard marked time for a feisty “Gettin’ Ready Rag.” Instead of playing from a pit, the ensemble accompanied remotely from another room, connected to the actors on stage by a TV screen at the theater’s rear. It certainly worked, technologically and in terms of musical balance, although it’s possible the accompaniment might have felt as visceral as the singing did, had the orchestra been in the same room with us.
Sitting in the audience at ACT’s “Ragtime” last night, I wondered whether Central Arkansas has more (and better) community theater than we know what to do with. If the greater Little Rock and North Little Rock areas are, as census estimates tell me, populated by around 300,000 people, that means cities like St. Paul, Minn., and St. Louis, Mo. and Orlando, Fla., are our nearest peers. Are community theater troupes in those cities putting out polished, thoughtful productions like this — and from actors, crew and orchestra members that hold down day jobs at local churches and collegiate schools and insurance companies? For those cities’ sakes, I sure hope so.
At some point, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” will land in Central Arkansas, and we will all collectively lose our shit. Until then, allow me to strongly recommend you snag a ticket to ACT’s “Ragtime” to get your dose of “period play so relevant to the year 2020 it’ll stir up your insides and make you weep.”
“Ragtime” runs through Saturday, Feb. 29. Get tickets at argentacommunitytheater.org/buy-tickets.