Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Boulevard Theatre's Stations Of The Cross

By Russ Bickerstaff
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There’s something subtly surreal about the set. In a storefront space on south Kinnikinnick Avenue there are the usual restaurant-style tables, chairs and carts that would normally be found in any of the eateries in the surrounding commercial neighborhood. It’s a bit weird seeing that in a space not unlike a storefront restaurant that had been turned into a theatre years ago complete with chairs for audience members surrounding the tables. It’s pleasantly disorienting and it’s the set Boulevard Theatre has developed for the premiere of Beth Monhollen’s Stations of the Cross—a comic series of monologues that makes thematic parallels between waiting tables and the Stations of the Cross in Christian literature.

The cast of eight are all dressed in traditional waiting garb—opening the show in chorus. Each takes turns performing monologues with the aid of the rest of the cast as extras. Between each of the monologues—another song sung in a cappella chorus. They’re wait-based parodies of traditional songs—the best of which has to be Tip Low and You Will Die—sung to the tune of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

The monologues themselves aren’t all strictly comical. Actually, there’s a pretty even mix of comedy and serious drama. Humor and non-humor alternate pretty evenly throughout the production. not surprisingly, patterning the monologues (fifteen in all) after Stations of the Cross keeps the entire show relatively well balanced. There’s a very natural arc to the stories even though they come from a variety of different characters waiting tables at a variety of different types of restaurants.   

Monhollen’s script is at its best when it brings across the feeling of actually listening to waiters and waitresses talking about work with each other. The little bits of personal flourish that some stories are told with keep things interesting, but there are quite a few moments here that relate aspects of waiting tables that may be far too familiar to be terribly interesting. The script’s sentimental moments are perhaps the most difficult to stay focused on, as it can be very difficult for any actor to go from zero to heart-wrenching in less than five minutes. Perhaps the more sentimental moments would work better with more of a lead in . . . or maybe they’d be more poignant if they were edited down to sharp relief. It’s also entirely possible that a better rhythm for the sentimental end of the mood will present itself after opening night. (Due to schedule restrictions for the weekend, I saw a preview performance.) Overall, the script is enjoyable and cleverly cohesive. Monhollen has put together a really good set of fifteen monologues that speak to anyone who has waited tables or been served.

As this is a new script, the cast has only had a couple of weeks to rehearse. In spite of this, even on a preview performance, the cast did a fairly good job of acting cohesively. Notably, Beth Monhollen did a fantastic job of bringing the feel of the show across from the center of it all. Presenting her new work to an open audience for one of the first times ever, she seemed to sparkle a bit during the preview, which went a long way towards lending the overall performance an endearing charm. Also of note during the preview was the monologue delivered by the cast’s most experienced actor—Boulevard Theatre Artistic Director Mark Bucher. Bucher summoned a heavy amount of gravitas to perform a particularly intense story told by a recovering alcoholic waiter. At first, the performance felt comical—Bucher seemed to be channeling Brando as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. The juxtaposition of a very convincing “you don’t know the horrors I’ve seen,” demeanor against the backdrop of a casual restaurant is really funny at first, but as the story settles-in, the audience begins to see just how awful things ARE for the character. It’s this transition between moods that is absolutely key to keeping everything running smoothly in Stations of the Cross and the cast seems remarkably good at navigating through emotions given the circumstances. It’s a production well worth seeing.

Stations of the Cross opens tonight, running April 29th through May 31st at the Boulevard Theatre

 

 

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