by David Pierce
Act One – The Script
You never know for sure if the way a play reads is the way a play performs. There are plays that read well but don’t carry that to the stage, and there are plays that are wonderful to watch that don’t read all that well. I have no idea how well Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Bob: A Life In Five Acts read, but it’s everything you could want out of a night of theatre comedy.
Granted, a large part of that is the cast and the staging, and I’ll get to those, but I wanted to take a moment to talk about the script itself and to applaud Dreamwell for choosing to do the show. I love how Dreamwell hunts for little known plays to perform, and Bob was a great choice. The script is hilarious, with moments of seriousness that never drop into syrupiness, in large part because of the jokes that come in at those moments of seriousness. One of my favorite laugh lines of the night was in one of those moments, and I’m not going to tell you what it is or set up the line because part of the pleasure was the fact that the line was both unexpected and a natural thing to say at that moment. The script has bawdy, ribald humor; subtle, restrained humor; humor that rises out of the moments; and humor that’s all in the written jokes. It’s a funny show, and I found myself laughing nearly constantly. Looking back, I can’t think of more than a one or two minute stretch without a laugh. It’s a fun script, executed in a fun manner.
Act Two – The Lead
Bob is the story of one man’s life, from birth til old age. It’s a challenging task in both a drama and a comedy, and Gavin Conkling does a great job with it. It’s not just his voice – Conkling does some wonderful acting with his face and eyes, particularly when Bob is a baby, but also all throughout the play. He moves smoothly from playing Baby Bob, to idealist Bob, to scared Bob, to spiteful Bob, and finally to accepting and triumphant Bob. As good as the script is, in the hands of a lesser lead actor, I could see this play dragging and turning into series of episodes. In Conkling’s hands, it’s a full show, and while each act is a different point in Bob’s life, it doesn’t feel episodic, but rather feels like the telling of one long tale. But it’s not just Conkling – there are six other actors, each doing fine work.
Act Three – The Cast
You don’t have to have much theatre experience to know when a cast is having fun. You can see it in their eyes, in their reactions, in how they walk across the stage. Further, it’s incredibly important when doing a comedy that the cast is having fun. A cast having fun elevates a comedy.
This cast is clearly having fun performing this play. Each member of the company is asked to perform several characters and each member acquitted themselves marvelously in the transition between different accents and body movements. Al Kittrell stands out for the range he showed, moving from a diner waitress to an animal trainer, and to a wolf with ease. Sara Knox as the White Castle employee who finds and keeps Baby Bob, grounds the early going with the obvious care she shows towards the baby. Erin Mills does fine work carrying the more serious moments in the play. Serena Collins, Bryan McIntyre, and Joe Tramner all have their moments to shine, Collins in particular as a girl scout who challenges Bob when he’s at his lowest, McIntyre in particular as a roulette dealer with a booming voice, and Tramner in particular as an immortal butler.
One thing that stands out from all the actors is the fact that, even though it was opening night, and they didn’t know yet where all the audience laugh lines would be, they were still able to follow along with the audience, pausing and not starting in with dialogue while the audience was still laughing. That might not seem like a challenging thing to do, but it is, and I commend them all for it, as well as commending them for the laughter in the first place.
Act Four – The Production
Director Nate Sullivan has gone with minimalist costumes and props as well as a minimalist set. The production has been staged almost entirely in the audience space, with fixed walls taking up nearly all of the stage to allow the cast to enter and exit the space. The only items in the staging area are a number of large wooden boxes, which the cast manipulates to form chairs, tables, whatever the scene needs. The lack of walls and furniture in the playing space allows the cast to quickly transition from scene to scene, making sure the production never drags. I’m a big fan of minimalist theatre, and I’m an even bigger fan of shows that don’t drag, so I applaud these staging decisions.
My only complaint is that because the Unitarian audience space is flat, it’s difficult if you’re sitting in the back to catch all the subtleties going on when Bob is a baby. You might miss something else here and there in the rest of the play, but it’s in Act I where sitting in the back is a major misadvantage. It might have been best to take advantage of the actual stage space for Act I. That way you’re not denying a good chunk of the audience the wonderful face and eye work Conkling does as Baby Bob.
Act Five – The Verdict
A fun script; a wonderful cast; a talented lead; a sharp, fast-paced production. All of these combine to make for an extremely enjoyable evening of theatre. Be sure to catch Bob at one of the remaining performances and be sure to sit in the front or at the sides.
Bob: A Life In Five Acts continues tonight and March 20-21 at the Unitarian Universalist Society. For ticket information, go here.