Saturday, Nov. 8, 2008

Lighly complex Comedy with RSVP

By Russ Bickerstaff
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After a brief and subtle kreusening with a bottle of Old Style at the Comet Café over dinner with my wife, I was off to the Astor Theatre for my first of two shows this weekend: the RSVP production of Paul Weitz’s Show People. My strange mixture of energy and consciousness in the midst of a particularly odd sleep schedule probably put me in the perfect frame of mind for Weitz’s comedy—an exceedingly fun hour and a half at the theatre which extends the inadvertent, “Theatre About Theatre,” theme that’s been going on in Milwaukee theatre over the course of the season.

Had mind-bending author Philip K. Dick written a pseudo-domestic non-genre comedy during his existentialist period in the late 1960’s, in would’ve ended up something like Paul Weitz’s contmporary comedy Show People. The premise runs something like this: a man hires a couple of out of work actors to play his parents for the benefit of a woman he intends to marry. Cute. There are a number of plot twists that reveal that things aren’t quite what they seem. Everyone seems to be lying about something. Charming. And then it becomes apparent that, amidst all of the artifice that’s going on in the play, there’s a certain degree of inadvertent honesty at the heart of all the deception. Almost brilliant. The criticism of the play—that it’s light, superficial comedy, falls apart under the weight of its truth vs. artifice motif, which permeates even the most seemingly insignificant aspects of its plot. On the surface this is very simple comedy with a considerable amount of cleverly biting wit. Indeed, it can be taken as such without missing that much, but for those of us with an agnostic, metaphysically subjectivist mindset perpetually pummeled by the delight of uncertainty (an admittedly tiny demographic) this is a pleasure on a great many levels.

The production itself adds a bit to the script with some insightful performances. Brian Richards shows a great deal of comedic poise as an out of work actor who has taken a job that turns out to be progressively more and more bizarre. His timing is excellent. Sharon Nieman-Koebert plays his wife, a cynical actress who has appeared onstage with him a number of times. Nieman-Koebert brings a textured, multi-leveled comedy to the stage in her role. There’s a kind of weariness about the character that Nieman-Koebert brings across in clever clarity. In the role of the stage couples’ employer, 90% of Brian Richards’ comedy is in the eyes here. There’s a wild-eyed craziness here that would be well-accentuated by the nervous ticks that have been known to accompany the kind of mania that comes to define his character. Richards’ performance is brilliantly reserved, keeping the character’s rapid-cycling manic depression from becoming too exaggerated. The role of the woman he intends to marry is played by Gloria Loeding. The character could read like a sweet, semi-vacuous pretty girl that only begins to show depth as the play progresses, but Loeding maintains a depth throughout the play that makes her quite a bit more interesting than she may have been in the original script.

A much more coherent, concise review of RSVP’s Show People appears in this week’s issue of the Shepherd. Show People runs through Novmber 22nd.

Tonight: My wife and are headed out to my second show of the week: Greater Tuna—a comedy set in one of the smallest towns in Texas. It’s the first of two Tuna shows to open in Milwaukee this month. The next one is a holiday Tuna show set to open at the end of the month with Soulstice Theatre.

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