On Fair Oaks Avenue just south of East Washington Avenue is a little theater only a handful of people know about.
It’s a shame. The Merc Lab, a storage space, rehearsal room, performance venue and glorified garage, is the home of some seriously inventive theater.
From the eccentric, blindingly colorful “Celeste and Starla Save Todd and Win Back the Day” in 2008 to Doug Holtz’s gritty “Tearoom Tango” about gay pickup culture in park bathrooms, the Merc Lab lets the members of Mercury Players Theatre take chances.
“Our goal overall as a company is to take risks,” said Sean Langenecker, who has acted in several shows at the Lab and is currently producing “1SW33TR1DE.” “It’s sort of a risk-free venue for us.
“It’s a home for local authors and directors,” he added. “We’re paying the rent on the place whether we’re doing a show there or not. Our mission … is to broaden this community’s theater experience.”
Mercury Players began leasing the Merc Lab in 2007, when the company was no longer able to use the Ironworks (now the Goodman Community Center) for rehearsal and storage space.
The Lab used to be “a dank, nasty, dirty warehouse,” Langenecker said. “We put in time and effort and money to make it livable, not only for us to rehearse in, but to invite the general public in.”
It’s a challenge, because the building is scheduled to be razed. The owner has to give the company several months’ notice, but nobody at Mercury Players is sure when the call will come.
Therefore, updates to the Lab have been a cautious work in progress. They purchased lighting equipment and brought it up to code. They bought heaters.
After a reviewer pointed out her displeasure with the seating during “Well” in early summer 2009, Rachel Jenkins-Bledsoe, artistic director of Mercury Players, scored a bunch of 50-cent hospital chairs to make the audience more comfortable.
“I feel like every show we have in that space we make the building itself better,” Jenkins-Bledsoe said. “The space is limitless with the possibilities and how we can manipulate it. We don’t set rules for ourselves.”
The problem is, the audience for plays like “Well” and “Vin” doesn’t seem to know where to go. Jenkins-Bledsoe isn’t sure why.
“‘Well’ should’ve had the audience,” she said. “It was a show that appealed to a wide variety of people, and why we didn’t sell out every night I still don’t know. We have a parking lot; parking is super easy. Are we just not marketing this well?”
The next show in the Merc Lab is Rob Matsushita’s intense hourlong drama, “1SW33TR1DE.” It’s the story of a woman who is brutally assaulted, something of a departure for the playwright and filmmaker.
Matsushita is known for his gore and gangster-driven work (“Massacre! The Musical” and “The Lizzies,” recently produced in Chicago) as well as humorous contributions to Madison’s popular Web series, “Chad Vader.”
“One of the advantages of a space that is clearly not built for performance originally is that you walk into ‘Tearoom Tango’ and it looks like a rest-stop,” Matsushita said. “‘1SW33TR1DE’ was written for that same amount of realism.”
The feel of the Merc Lab, with its ambient traffic noise and thrift store accessories, is a good fit for the plot of Matsushita’s play, set in a New Jersey apartment. Mercury Players company members also think it’s easier for some to come to a former garage than a formal theater.
“The space itself is more accessible in some ways,” Langenecker said. “Our theater company has a different audience than most other groups in town already. This offshoot space gives it a grungier, homier feel to it.
“It’s appealing to me. I like going someplace that’s not a theater to see theater.”
IF YOU GO
What: Mercury Players presents “1SW33TR1DE” by Rob Matsushita
Where: The Merc Lab, 930 N. Fair Oaks
When: Weekends through Dec. 12