Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fourplay With The Boulevard

After 25 years, The Boulevard Theatre gives Milwaukee FOURPLAY.

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The Boulevard Theatre is the first to officially open its 2010-2011 season. This week, it opens its 25th anniversary season with Fourplay: 4 Comedies of Seduction. Four romantic comedy shorts by four different playwrights play out on a nearly empty stage. Three contemporary comedies are followed by an intermission and Harold Pinter’s 1962 one-act The Lover. Boulevard Artistic Director Mark Bucher has chosen a brisk evening of fun interpersonal comedy to usher-in the Boulevard’s 25th year.

 Hugh Blewett; Keigan Vannoy in THE RED COAT. Photos www.troyfreund.com

The Red Coat by John Patrick Shanley

The author of Doubt explores the charm and humor of first love. John (Hugh Blewett) is waiting outside a party to meet Mary (Keigan Vannoy.) The Boulevard’s intimate space (one of the smallest, most personal performance spaces in town) would make for the perfect space for audiences to hear that first romantic dialogue between two people who have never felt romantic love before.  Spiral Theatre did a studio theatre production of Butterflies Are Free a couple of years back that brilliantly captured the tenderness and immediacy of early romantic conversations in youth. Blewett and Vannoy don’t quite make it there, but there’s an interesting sort of meta-art going on here. The dialogue is written about a pair of characters opening up to the concept of romantic love for the first time. And here are two young actors who are opening up to the stage for one of the first times. Mary and John fumble around for the right words as Keigan and Hugh acquaint themselves with that studio theatre connection between two actors, two characters and an audience. The newness about it all is very charming.

Dead Right by Elaine Jarvik

The show switches gears to the comic dialogue of Penny and Bill: an older couple played by Barbara Weber and Mark Ninneman. The two sit discussing an obituary over coffee. The obituary is poorly written. Penny wants to make certain that her obituary is written better. It’s kind of a humorous dialogue with some rather funny bits, but it’s probably the least interesting of the four presented here. Ninneman does a pretty good job with moments that call on him to be brutally realistic and casually dismissive of Penny’s obsessing. Weber renders Penny’s obsessive-ness without the kind of exaggeration that would make it feel tedious.

Sure Thing by David Ives

The first portion of the show closes-out with a short be David Ives that was featured in his collection All In The Timing, produced some time ago locally as a program of the same title by the Sunset Playhouse. Reminiscent of an improv game, the short envisions a meeting between a man and a woman at a café. An offstage bell periodically rings over the course of the conversation, revealing the infinite possibilities open to two people meeting for the first time. Identity is circumstance and real, meaningful connection between two people is all in the timing . . . two people have to meet at just the right time in their lives under just the right circumstances. Ives breezes through the interaction quite fluidly with rapid-fire comedy that’s energetically explored for the Boulevard by Ken Dillon, Brooke Wegner and a bell. (The hand behind the bell goes uncredited in the program.)

The dialogue goes in so many directions in so brief a period of time that the script becomes a playground for actors and director. In this particular case, director Thomas Mertz-Dillon worked with the cast to find a rhythm for the piece that works really well. Many of the lines can work well with either comic exaggeration OR casual understatement. Dillon and Wegner modulate well between exaggeration and subtler delivery. Wegner occasionally stands-up from the table to deliver lines almost directly to the audience, which feels a bit odd when the script isn’t specifically leading off in a direction that would move her away from the table, but the rhythm of the piece is quick enough that it feels natural anyway.

It’s the punchiest piece in the evening and it leads straight into Wegner’s charming introduction intermission.

Ericka Wade & Jason Will in THE LOVER.   Photo www.troyfreund.com

The Lover by Harold Pinter

The 1963 short about a husband, a wife and her lover can be played either as an offbeat comedy or a serious, somewhat sad drama. In an evening of romantic comedy, director Mark Bucher takes the short in the direction of comedy. Ericka Wade and Jason Will play a wealthy, young British couple. He’s got an office job. She’s evidently a housewife. We see their relationship through a series of brief scenes. There’s an engagingly subtle complexity about the dialogues between husband and wife as he casually mentions work at the office and she casually talks about meeting with her lover at tea time. Will conjures a bit of palpable discomfort in the conversations. His reaction to this discomfort gradually spills over and Wade registers a bit of concern—a passive kind of desperation.

Emotions here are played-out in a really, really subtle wash, which could easily be mistaken for a disinterested portrayal. This is the sort of thing that can only work really well in a studio theatre setting—the kind that director Mark Bucher has had a quarter century to become familiar with. Had the emotions been intensified even a bit, Pinter’s lines would’ve come across as more obvious punch lines and the whole thing might’ve been a great deal easier to follow, but the subtlety is a welcome end to the first show of the 2010-2011 theatre season.

The Boulevard Theatre’s Fourplay: 4 Comedies of Seduction runs through September 5th.

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