Monday, April 11, 2011

The Bay Players' Surreal Comic Tribute to Theatre

The Bay Players welcome spring with three bizarre comic shorts by Ciristopher Durang

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The Whitefish Bay High School Auditorium is as traditional a proscenium theatre as one is likely to find. Actors mill about on it as the play starts. Director Raymond Bradford renders a backstage mood onstage by way of introduction. This may be three shorts by a relatively obscure contemporary playwright, but his is a quintessential community theatre experience. It’s exceedingly cool that a community theatre would even consider producing three shorts by a relative unknown. All too often, community theatre is afraid to take chances. With three shorts by surrealist comic playwright Christohper Durang, Bradford shows a willingness to take some risks here.

The first short in the program is Durang’s acclaimed short The Actor’s Nightmare. Eric Stein plays George Spelivin—evidently an accountant who everyone thinks is an actor set to take-over for another in a show that ends up being a weird mishmash of various classics including Hamlet, Noel Coward’s Private Lives, Beckett’s Endgame and others. Stein feels kind of awkward in the role, which fits the short perfectly.

A  surreal mixture of multiple different plays, the surrealism covers for any shortcomings in the acting throughout the program. Aside from the strange juxtaposition of a man who doesn’t think he’s an actor and the mélange of plays and dramatic styles, the short never manages much insight into the nature of theatre. This is perfectly fine as Durang doesn’t seem to be looking  to make any coherent statement about the nature of theatre so much as he is trying to celebrate it and explore a what ends up being a very vivid nightmare for just about any actor—getting onstage and forgetting one’s lines. Bradford rushes the action across the stage well enough to keep the random switches from play to play fun and enjoyable comic extensions. 

 

The program breaks for intermission after the first short, only to return afterwards with a pair of surrealist parodies of classic dramas. For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls is a reasonably well executed parody of that overblown piece of American drama that is The Glass Menagerie. Durang needles his way into the classic in a way that both admires and spoofs Tennessee Williams’ drama. Lori Morse is a comically wicked and caring mother  Lawrence—a socially autistic adult son played sympathetically by Josh Klingman. Lawrence collects glass … cocktail stirs. His mother is trying to find a good woman for him so that she doesn’t have to look after him anymore. To this end, she has gotten her son Tom (played with witty indifference by Rick Frecksa) to bring a girl (Liz Getschow) to the house who works at the warehouse that serves as his workplace.

A fun spook of the Glass Menagerie, For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls is the most concrete and realistic piece of the three. As a result, it’s not anywhere near as accomplished as the final short on the program—Duran’s Streetcar Named Desire spoof Desire, Desire, Desire. Blanche (a suitably over-the-top Sharon Nieman-Koebert) and Stanley (Mike O’Toole) wait for the return of Stella. As the characters go on the way they tend to  go on, they are visited by a census worker, Big Daddy, two Maggies and Cora from O’Neil’s  The Iceman Cometh. The mixing of Streetcar, Iceman and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof seems as natural as it is unnatural.

Dramas blur together in a comic spoof that fuses together with enough genuine respect for all of the plays in question to reach a second, deeper level of surrealist drama beyond the parody. A beautiful stage presence for this kind of off-center comedy, Liz Whitford makes a cameo-level appearance as Cora and one of the Maggies. A suitably bizarre end to a bewilderingly strange evening’s community theatre north of town, Desire, Desire, Desire ends up being one of the stranger bits that I’ve seen all season—not because it’s trying to be strange (it is,) but because there’s a weirdness beyond the surface level that reaches a crescendo that doesn’t really end until  the final bows. The rhythm of the program kind of falls apart here, but it's kind of designed to. What better way to celebrate theatre?   

The Bay Players’ production of An Evening of One Acts By Christopher Durang closes next weekend with 8pm performances on April 15th and 16th at the Whitefish Bay High School Auditorium. For reservations, call 414-299-9040. 

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