by Matthew Falduto
Cedar Rapids - I am definitely enjoying the TCR Underground Festival. Last week, I experienced two really funny plays and last night was no different. The laughs came quickly in the first show of the night, Nirvana, written by Lin Kemp. Playing an innocent simply called The Man, Al Willett offers an earnest performance, which is the only way to play a character who views the world through binoculars and acts silly. Janet Haar, who played his wife and was also extremely funny in last week's Truth or Consequences, matched Willett's earnest performance, showing a fine chemistry.
The show is satirical look at our government and the lengths to which it is beholden to Big Money/Big Lobbying/Big Religion (played by Duane Larson who throws plenty of money around, but never quite got it as far the third row where I was sitting) and Big Oil/Big Pharma (played by Larry Hansen of the enviable handlebar mustache). When The Man discovers that the president is being kept alive by these special interests, he is visited by Emissary (played by Brian Smith, who was clearly enjoying every evil moment of the character). As a way to keep The Man quiet, Emissary offers him the position of president. Can The Man say no? Probably not as Emissary tells us he has a PhD in tempting and a Master's in goading.
There's lot of potential in this show (for example casting The Public as an annoying child [nicely played by Max Locher] certainly sticks it to us), but I think it ends too soon. I would have liked to see more of how the special interests affected our government. There's plenty of humor there as well. The fate of The Man is effective as a final message on what's happening with our government, but I would encourage Kemp to expand the interaction between the special interests and The Man before the inevitable ending.
I am well acquainted with the second play of the evening, Broken Branches. Playwright Brian Tanner is also a member of the Black Doggers, and I had the privilege of offering feedback as Tanner was working on the show.
The show tackles a couple of different issues. The main story follows the desire of recently fired and lonely Ben (K Michael Moore) to find a real relationship. This is moved forward by his well meaning dingbat of a friend Fred (Bryant Duffy) who signs him up for a whole host of internet dating sites. However, Ben's information is also sent to non-dating sites as well, including a genealogy site where he is found by Alice (Kimberly Meyer), who believes he is her long lost cousin. Ben accepts Alice's friend request on Facebook thinking she's into him. The secondary story is all about the attempts by Ben and Fred's roommate Quentin (played with a delightfully manic energy by Brandon Dean) to change history using the time machine he has created. Of course, neither Ben nor Fred believe Quentin has created a time machine, particularly since he uses such household items as a lighter, toilet paper, and VHS tapes for his wacky experiments. One doesn't often see time travel tackled on stage, and Tanner delivers a clever and intriguing script on the subject.
Both of these story lines provide for a lot of great humor. One would not expect a riff on Fred Savage as a genocidal lunatic would be funny. But it is. Oh, it is. And the Nazi humor is both gutsy and funny. Probably the best scene in the entire piece are the two simultaneous instant message conversations Ben juggles. One is with Alice and the other is with Alice's cousin, Cassie (played with sass by Ashley Keenan). Excellent direction by Zhen Rammelsburg and execution by K Michael Moore make it clear where each IM is going. Plus, Moore's interpretation of the lines in this scene is particularly good as he gives us a very clear picture of the well meaning, sweet everyman that is the character of Ben. It is the one time in the play when the static staging really works well.
This leads me to my one major criticism of all four shows I've seen at the festival so far - the staging. The Grandon Studio is both a rewarding and challenging space for directors as the audience is situated on three sides of the stage. As you may know, this is called a thrust stage and has been used for literally thousands of years. It's rewarding because it allows for a wonderfully intimate theatre experience. However, I believe every other theatre in our area has a proscenium stage, with the audience situated directly in front of the stage, not on the sides. (Correct me in the comments if you think of one that's not proscenium...) Even the Iowa City Community Theatre has now reverted back to the proscenium set up. So we're not used to seeing a thrust stage performance, and perhaps our local directors are not used to creating a show in one.
For the two shows last week, I was seated in the main section and while I suspected those in the side sections were not seeing nearly the same show I was, I could not be sure. After sitting on one of the side sections for last night's show, I am certain I did not get as complete an experience as those in the main section. With the audience on three sides, there are going to be times when actors block one another from one section of the audience or another. This can be worked around by moving actors more frequently, creating a more dynamic performance as well as allowing all sides to view scenes. To that end, a spare stage with few set pieces is essential, particularly if the stage is small, as is the case with Grandon. This allows for movement and ensures that set pieces do not block the audience. Finally placement of the actors in key scenes is crucial. If we cannot see the actor who is speaking, at least give us the reactions of another actor whenever possible so we can feel the impact of the speech.
With Nirvana, director Justin Braden did a good job of moving the actors about the stage and allowing us to see reactions of the non-speaking actors. Keeping the set simple helped as well. Still, there were many times when a simple shift of position by an actor on stage would have opened him or her up to more of the audience.
For Broken Branches, much of the staging was more problematic. Too many large set pieces limited movement by the actors, leading to a very static staging. This resulted in those on the sides missing some of the action. One crucial scene was played entirely at a table stage right - those of us on the stage left side could not see either actor's facial reactions.
The next Grandon Studio show is Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde in February. This is a show with a large cast and potentially static staging (it takes place in a courtroom). It will be interesting to see how director Jason Alberty tackles that show in this space. And word on the street is there will be Oscar Wilde action figures available for purchase. So yeah, don't miss that one.
But of course, you don't have to wait til February to see another show in the Grandon Studio. While Broken Branches and Nirvana have now ended, the festival continues tonight, Saturday and Sunday with new shows. I strongly encourage you to check it out. I will be there on Saturday to experience four shows in eight hours and I just can't wait!