Thursday, November 3, 2011

Lots of laughs in the inaugural night of TCR Underground

by Matthew Falduto

Cedar Rapids - I am huge fan of the idea of theatres producing local work. There are so many great playwrights in our area. So I am always thrilled when I hear that City Circle is going to do their original works festival or Dreamwell is awarding $100 to the winner of their Writers Joust or Riverside is producing Walking the Wire. Or heck, everything that SPT does.

For the past five years, I've been a part of the Black Doggers, a Corridor playwrighting group that meets every two weeks to discuss their work. Being a part of that group and critiquing and discussing new work with fellow playwrights is one of the most enjoyable theatre experiences I've had in recent years. So I approached my task of reviewing the TCR Underground plays as a Dogger might, examining the plays themselves, perhaps even more so than the acting and directing and the design elements. That's not say I'm not going to critique those elements as well, but in my mind, I am going to be sitting in one of my fellow Doggers' living room, can of Pepsi in hand, listening to the words of the play and ready to give some constructive criticism.

Theatre Cedar Rapids solicited scripts for their Underground festival without any restrictions. Full length, one act, ten minutes, it was all good. And that's what they got. Opening last night were Truth Or Consequences by Ryan Rausch and The Ethical Dilemma of a Sandwich Down The Pants by Kelly Shriver Kolln.

Ten minute play Sandwich precedes the full length Truth or Consequences, and is a lot of fun to watch. The story is pretty simple: a man tries to steal a sandwich by stuffing it down his pants but is caught by the clerk who retrieves the sandwich and puts it back, to the disgust of the rest of the customers in the store. There are lots of humorous moments in the play, and the actors kept the action moving with hilarious silent reactions, especially Jacob Coover and K Michael Moore. Particularly funny were the series of moments when the Lottery Ticket Buyer (Larry Hansen) would spend time scratching off his tickets, while the other customers impatiently waited to check out. Just when we think it's over and he's moving, we hear the scritch, scritch, scritch as he's working his way toward a possible win. I enjoyed the breaking of the fourth wall by a number of characters, in particular Alex Williams and Justin Mangrich as the two students. Both have such an energy on stage, and I can't really explain the utter delight I felt when Mangrich squeaked his marker while writing on a post it note. It was just really funny and honestly I don't know why.

I also have to give kudos to TCR for entrusting the ten minute Sandwich play to 13 year old director Emmy Palmersheim. You might remember her from her excellent performance in Eurydice. It's clear she knows a thing or two about directing as well, as the actors moved quickly and smartly through this piece. Providing a platform for the next generation of theatre artists is important; good job, TCR.

The second play of the evening is set in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the town that changed its name to the popular radio show in the 1950s in order to get the show to broadcast from their town, which did once a year for 50 years. The title also refers to the fact that nearly every character in the play has a secret or three. However, in this case, telling the truth leads to consequences.

The show is ostensibly about Charlotte (Darcy Delong) who is bringing her future husband Alex (K Michael Moore) home for dinner with her dysfunctional extended family. Charlotte fits right in with this family as she has lied to Chris about her previous three (or is it four?) marriages. Charlotte's parents, JoAnn and Steve (Mary Crandall and Ashley Wagel), are part of this family dinner, bickering non-stop. Her aunt and uncle, Maggie (Lisa Streif) and Jerry (Keith Kenel), are also present. Jerry continually drinks in order to deal with the crazy family dynamics. Maggie is a stereotypical homophobic Christian Fundamentalist. She's also popping pills constantly. Charlotte's other aunt is Lily (Laurie Thomas), who is clearly not in tune with reality, wearing outrageous clothes and adopting a faux Southern accent. But with a family like this, how can anyone blame her?

Charlotte's grandmother, Rose (Janet Haar), may be the most normal of the bunch, but you get the idea that when she was younger she was most likely as crazy as everyone else in the family. Perhaps that's the point of the play - with age comes wisdom? The final two characters are David (Bryant Duffy), Maggie's gay closeted son, and his boyfriend, Chris (Richard Adams). These two characters are the most sympathetic ones in the entire play. One wonders if the playwright was trying to make a point about homosexual relationships vs. heterosexual relationships. But if so, it got lost among the many different storylines.

The best aspect of this piece is the amount of humor crammed into it. There are funny moments constantly eliciting guffaws from an appreciative audience. However, the humor is often of the shock variety, as in "Did that person just say that?!" We laugh, but we're a little uncomfortable, too. Some of the running gags were really funny, such as the family's belief that Alex is Mexican. Moore smoothly transitioned from confusion to amusement to outrage as the evening progressed, each reaction funnier than the previous. Haar had some of the best lines and she delivered them with gusto. Everyone had at least one or two humorous moments and all were up to the task.

If I were sitting in a Doggers' living room, I'd follow up these positives with some constructive criticism. If this were just a straight up comedy, it could have been an extremely successful show. Play it all for laughs and maybe we wouldn't feel dissatisfied at the end. But there are heavy issues moving through this play that we're supposed to take seriously. And that's where the play is less successful.

Truth is, I am not sure what the play is about and who we're supposed to be rooting for. The most likeable characters, David and Chris, are reactive and consequently don't seem like main characters, never making decisions that lead to any change of their characters. If David chose to out himself, that would be an interesting character moment, but instead we get him being outed by his cousin in a fit of rage, and what's more surprising and disappointing, we never see the consequences for Charlotte of this terrible betrayal. Charlotte appears to be the main character in the beginning of the play, but she's so unlikable with her lies and again, things just happen to her, and we never see her make any decisions or experience any growth of character. We understand completely when Alex leaves her and we wish the storm hadn't prevented him from leaving earlier. (Side note: the storm that forces everyone to stay in the house longer than they would have normally is a bit of a cliché.)

The two sisters, Maggie and JoAnn are constantly cruel to each other, making both of them extremely unlikable characters. And when we hear the family secret from their childhood that explains some of the reasons behind this, it's just left there as an explanation without any sort of follow up. By that point, we just don't care enough about these characters. When Steve stands up to JoAnn and actually does something to deal with the dysfunction in the play, we're thrilled, but we're wondering why didn't see more of Steve prior to this moment? And then we get one more secret from JoAnn that just seems tacked on and unnecessary. She was unlikable enough - what was the point of that?

I think the basic problem with the script is that it tries to do too much. Focus on Steve's actions to get out of the dysfunctional family. Or focus on the contrast between the healthy relationship of David and Chris and the dysfunctional relationships of everyone else. Or really deal with the repercussions of Charlotte's lies. There's so much happening in this play that everything gets the short shrift. This is Ryan Rausch's first attempt at writing a play, and with that in mind, it's actually quite a good effort. Interesting characters, very funny... it just needs more focus. Hopefully, he will continue writing.

I encourage you to check out these two plays, which are running again tonight. Sandwich is delightful and Truth or Consequences is full of laughs. On Saturday, there's a full docket of staged readings and then two more plays on Sunday. Go here for more information about the festival.

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