by Sarah Jarmon
Cedar Rapids - SPT Theatre Company never fails to put on a good show. But Friday night, within the slick, yet familiar interior of the newly renovated CSPS building, they blew me away, and I was not the only one. Tales from the Writer's Room is a singular experience in this town. A sketch show feel spliced with powerhouse vocal performances and a comfortable lack of barriers between the audience and the performers makes this somewhat expensive ticket well worth the admission price.
Mary Sullivan along with this installment's special guest, Scott Humeston, opened the show with a bitingly funny bit about the farmer and his wife from Grant Wood's American Gothic playing twister according to the direction of a disembodied voice from the beyond.
Twister was the theme for the evening and it was weaved through every piece. It was also showcased by the dangling twister board hanging above the stage, though I'm not sure I liked this touch. The white plastic board, even when it wasn't lit, drew your eyes, and was slightly distracting during some of the more serious pieces.
But serious, certainly did not dominate the evening. One of the things I appreciate most about Tales from the Writers Room is the seemingly effortless ability that the writers have to hit every possible genre without any of the pieces feeling forced or out of left field. The exuberant hilarity of "Straight Up with a Twist," a game show/reality TV series piece, poked fun at local regions as effectively as the hypnotizing and sweetly flawless monologue, "Endings," drew you into the world of a woman at the end of her marriage. And every piece slid into the next with a liquid grace, tied in perfectly by every apt song choice superbly executed by the band.
And if you've never been to an SPT show, even if you HATE theatre, come for the band. Filling the space and setting people dancing, literally dancing in their chairs, is an all star concoction of musical genius. Whether it was a keyboard solo from the inspiring Gerard Estella, or a magical riff flowing forth from the fingers of Ron DeWitte on Guitar, every song the band hit was a testament to their unbelievable skill. Add in the nearly discordant but somehow delicious and haunting vocals of Janelle Lauer, Jane Pini, and Doug Elliot and you have a powerful combination of rock and soul. The band also helped showcase the original song, "Twister" and the the melodious and surprisingly delightful singing voice of SPT company member, Jason Alberty, in the song "Giant-Sized Butterflies."
This is not to say that the show was perfect. There were a spattering of lighting issues that left some people in the dark a bit longer than they should have been. Gerard accidentally knocked a set piece askew during a transition. But those few slight missteps just brought you closer to the performers, making you feel like you were a part of the show. And the company clearly wanted audience participation, encouraging dancing and clapping, and cracking up during a few particularly funny skits. It felt natural and inclusive.
And the actors were so much fun to watch. It felt like a gift to just be able to sit there and watch them play together. Alberty and Humeston played particularly well together, whether they were doddering old men, looking forward to dressing up in the perfect costume to snare a saucy biddy on Halloween this year, or pantomiming mixing a drink of epic proportions on an eastern Iowa game show. Akwi Nji and Mary Sullivan were adorable and generous onstage too, complimenting the high-octane effervescence offered by Adam Witte, Humeston, and Alberty well.
The energy ebbed and flowed, even after the 20 minute intermission. I will say that as the show started late, I did begin to feel the length of the event by the end. But just when I was reaching for my phone to check the time, the whole feverish wonder came to a magnificent ending. I can't wait till the next show, December 3rd and 4th. I hope you'll meet me there. Even if you can't, tell your friends. And if you haven't seen the new CSPS building, check it out. It's gorgeous.