by John Stoltenberg

Last night in a small, tucked-away space in Silver Spring, I watched a “real time” drama so exciting and original, so drop-dead funny and knock-out suspenseful, that I left the theater dazed and euphoric.

The play is called Riot. It takes place in Sam’s Coffee Shop—a room of not more than 600 square feet that Set Designers Kevin Kearney and Toly Yarup have turned into a hangout for townies and students from nearby Whitney College, complete with café tables, blackboard menu, real coffee, and pastries. The event that precipitates the play is a demonstration just outside demanding that the college toss its mascot name “Crusaders” (whose sectarian history might offend non-Christians) and adopt “Patriots.” As the play unfolds, the demonstration outside turns violent and the violence comes inside, shockingly.

Six incredibly quick-witted acting talents improvise plot points and characters that have been blocked out by three brilliant co-creators: Director Sue Schaffel, Assistant Director Garrett Schaffel, and Fight Director Claudia Rosales. Now and then an actor will stop and shout “Wait!,” the lighting (designed by Simon Ellerbe) will abruptly shift, and an either/or question will be posed to the audience, whose answer will determine what happens next in the story. This means the show plays out differently each performance.

The questions last night cleverly echoed contested social issues, and at a couple points these canny show stoppers prompted out-loud debate that became its own riveting drama. For instance after an alarmingly rough altercation between a police officer and a young townie, the audience was asked which one provoked it. A case could have been made for either. Audience engagement was off the charts.

Large flatscreen monitors ranged about the room by Technical Coordinator Orion Stekoll display a running Twitter feed about what’s going on (some of this is done in real time in response to the improv and some of it was prewritten to support the storytelling, but it all seems totally spontaneous). The tweets, each with the hashtag #MeetatSams, not only track the rising tensions outside but also comment on the flaring character clashes inside. The effect of watching the action then glancing intermittently at the tweeting about it was for me an unprecedented experience in live theater.

Andrew Quilpa plays Chris, the barrista; Smitty Chai plays Ryan, the townie; Christopher Holbert plays Officer Frank Bell; Nerissa Hart plays Nicole, the demonstration organizer; Mollie Goff plays Andrea, a Whitney student; Jennifer Berry plays Stacy, a reporter from a local television station. Without exception the performances were gripping.

Riot plays only through February 28, and the space can accommodate an audience of only 27. The show is already selling out and there’s no way everyone who’s going to want to see it will get in.

Running Time: About one hour 15 minutes (may vary from show to show).

Riot plays through February 28, 2016 at The Highwood Theatre – 924 Silver Spring Avenue, in Silver Spring, MD. Tickets are $25 (student tickets $20) and can be purchased online or at the door.