By James E. Trainor III
SPT - Last night a crowd gathered at the recently-renovated CSPS building to see the latest installment of SPT's Tales from the Writer's Room. The theme this year is "The Games People Play;" each show revolves around a specific popular board game. This weekend's fare involves that classic game of money-grubbing, Monopoly.
The Writer's Room shows have been a cornerstone of SPT's work for a while now, but it is a new deveolpment that they have a large, flexible space in which to present them. The stage at CSPS, now with more seating, is deep enough to comfortably fit a band, with a lower space downstage for the skits and scenes, or for Doug and Jane to come down and do a fun number.
The stage offers a lot of options, and however director Richard Barker stages the action, everyone can be seen. Sightlines were becoming a serious problem as the Writer's Room series outgrew its previous accommodations. Monopoly makes great use of the larger space, employing a number of entrances on different levels to keep things moving. Actors talk to the band, one scene can set up while the other finishes, and people can enter from the mainstage, the smaller stage, or the house, altogether allowing for a show that doesn't stop to catch its breath unless it wants to. Arranging for a larger, more flexible performance space is probably the smartest move SPT has made, and they take full advantage of it here.
The band, as always, is great. Joined by local pop/rock musician Layton White as well as regular guests Greg Kanz and Dave Ollinger, they fill the space with sound, keep the show moving along, and provide a groove that keeps you tapping your feet. Band regulars are Janelle Lauer (who sits at the piano and sings a bouncy, defiant version of "I'm not Falling for You Anymore"), Doug Elliot, (who applies his clear charming voice to such nostalgic numbers as "Boardwalk" and "Everybody Wants to Rule the World") and Jane Pini (who brings down the house with "Little Pink Houses").
It's a rare treat to hear Dave Ollinger sing a number. His take on "Folsom Prison Blues" is a perfect choice to end an act; the catchy beat stays in your head throughout intermission and leaves you hungry for more.
Layton White is a young artist with a strong, soulful voice and a lot of passion. His versions of "Billionaire" and "Talk is Cheap" are a lot of fun. He's also game to join in the fun onstage, playing characters in "Rich Uncle Pennybags Falls on Hard Times" and "The People vs. Hallmark."
The actors — Akwi Nji, Mary Sullivan, and Adam Witte, with Jason Alberty and Dr. David Martino filling out the writing credits — are joined onstage by special guests Jim Kropa and Susie Streit.
Kropa is an excellent addition to this group, and he fills the stage with a very large and energetic presence. A great interstitial in this show is Kropa coming through between scenes, telling us in choppy, nervous monologues about how his ex-lover "monopolized" all his favorite love songs, and now music is ruined. In a comic twist on Aesop's "Grasshopper and the Ant," he creates a wild, loud, fun-loving insect to counter Nji's focused, industrious ant. He also sings, offering a steady, irreverent take on "King of the Road."
Streit is a solid performer with a great sense of comic timing. In "The People vs. Hallmark" she does a hilarious turn as a drunken, confused Judge Judy presiding over a case wherein a spurned lover tries to sue Hallmark for a faulty Valentine's card. With precision and biting sarcasm, she is able to hold her own against Kropa's larger-than-life Cupid, making for a lively, fast-paced skit.
There are a couple of interesting ideas that play out in this show. Part of it feels like an easy stroll around the block, reflecting on themes of hearth and home. In "Cedar Rapids," Adam Witte calls out Stephen Bloom with a witty, poetic counter to Bloom's much-reviled essay. In an inspiring note he remarks on our "battleship federal buildings" built to raise a defiant middle finger to the river; the sentiment, made in the midst of a New Bohemia that is decidedly in recovery, makes one wonder how cultural cornerstones such as CSPS failed to make a blip on Bloom's radar.
In a more comic vein, "A More Perfect Union" takes and turns Iowa's progressive marriage policies, as Sullivan and Witte play a straight couple who have come up from Arkansas to have a "happy, gay wedding," confounding the attempts of the "Pride Productions" wedding planner (played masterfully by Nji) to be inclusive. It's a very funny scene that leaves a warm and homey feeling, even as it pokes fun at the bitter state of our national discourse.
On the darker side, we are reminded in Monopoly of the economic realities we live in at the moment. The board game took off during the Great Depression, when people forgave the game its quirky mechanics for the chance to roleplay wheeling-and-dealing millionaires. Our own time is similar, and the "Monopoly" theme gives SPT a chance to compare and contrast these days to those. In "Rich Uncle Pennybags Falls on Hard Times" the masses revolt and occupy Park Place, a sardonic nod to the political turmoil going on even here in Iowa. In "Back to Start" a young woman gives herself a second chance to get the finances right. The pacing itself reflects the ups and downs of hard times — or a game of Monopoly: at times the show is fast-paced, energetic and restless, pulling itself up by its own bootstraps, and at others it is reflective, uncertain, assessing its situation. The timing always feels right for the moment, and director Richard Barker's hand is clearly at play here, bringing a wide variety of scenes and songs into a cohesive whole.
SPT's The Games People Play: Monopoly plays one more night: tonight, February 18th at 8pm at CSPS. If you don't have tickets to see this show, do not pass Go, do not collect $200 - get them now!