by Genevieve Heinrich
Cedar Rapids - There's a special place in my heart reserved for taxidermied mice arranged in endearingly human situations. Although they're afforded only a throw-away Stevie Wonder joke (you'll just have to see it), the "dead art" (audience groan) of taxidermy in general features heavily in this most recent installment of SPT Theatre's "Tales from The Writers' Room." Not quite what I was expecting when I sat down to enjoy Soups and Salads, the latest serving in the company's "Food for thought" season... but then, the unexpected is somewhat de rigueur for SPT's eclectic mishmash of artists. The only constant is the quality, and last night's crew, with a record number of guests - including a guest writer (Aaron Murphy)! - did not disappoint.
The audience was in raucously good spirits for this performance. SPT audiences always reflect that same unexpected quality. This troupe appeals to a wide variety of people, and the people-watching is almost as compelling as the production. All (adult) ages are represented, and the dress ranges from old t-shirt casual to on-the-town. You always see at least one person you know, and it's never someone you expect to see.
The show, this time around, has an extended storyline that is carried through the performance. Mrs. Prudence Lipton-Campbell (Mary Sullivan) has arrived in Cedar Rapids to review The Salad Bar restaurant, and over the course of the evening's sketches, she becomes involved in the lives and tribulations of the establishment's regulars. It's fascinating to see how a collection of writers can come together to build arcs for the different characters. Language and style of humor make it clear that each sketch was penned by someone distinct, but the characterizations are consistent. In some cases, it seemed as though scenes were written independently and adapted to fit the characters, but between Richard Barker's deft direction and the skill of the actors, they still work. One stand-out is guest David McCauley's consistently manic paranoid germaphobic conspiracy theorist.
While there is nothing to dislike about this production, I found myself missing the frenetic pace and wild turn-arounds of the less-structured shows. It's fun to experience the versatility of the actors as they bounce from character to character. In particular, Mary Sullivan's astounding ability to establish a character in a sentence or less is wasted in this long-form style. One exception was guest Megan Ginsberg's gender-bending turn as, well, everyone else in the show. While all of the other actors developed their characters consistently, Ginsberg was the floater, playing multiple recurring characters throughout the night, each with her quintessential humor and irrepressible energy. Although at times it felt like one "funny man" with a stage full of "straight men," it was wonderful to see what she could do with those roles.
Interestingly, the band - usually the consistent backbone of an SPT performance - seemed to jump in where the actors left off. There was more variety in the musical acts this time, in contrast to the cohesion of the storyline. Guest Allan Boettger's sonorous bass is put to good use in integrating the hilarious "Poke Salad Annie" into a scene. "Portland Clam Chowder" had me wishing the band would do more instrumentals. The vocal harmonies were magnificent all night, and Gerard Estella's keyboards on "Higher Ground" nearly brought down the house.
The most fun, though, was getting to hear the different sides of Jane Pini. She closed the first act with her familiar strut and belt on "Rock Me Right." During his pre-intermission announcement, Doug Elliot made a comment about how Jane is the one who rocks, while he sings the pretty songs. This was clearly a set up, because in the second act, Pini throws off the rock mantle and shows some gorgeous performance range, opening with a beautiful rendition of "Chicken Soup with Rice." Later in the second act, Elliot and Pini blend their very different voices with precision and grace on an astounding version of "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme."
The band definitely carried the emotional range of this performance. This show had more persistent comedy than other SPT performances, and it was only the band that cut through with brief moments of tenderness. The scenes were faultlessly funny, but I could feel the tangible absence of somber reflection. Still, the humor was fantastic. The "Short, Blond and..." sketch was a flawless balance of wordplay (the bartender's predictive abilities get him labeled a "grognosticator") and silent physical comedy.
If you need a good laugh, do NOT miss the final performance of SPT Theatre's Soup and Salad, tonight at 8 p.m. at CSPS (tickets here). Be sure to remember a non-perishable food donation for HACAP. If you can't make it out, or if tickets sell out (as they are wont to do!) be sure to secure your spot early for February's Entrees/Main Course. I know I'm hungry again already!