Friday, June 18, 2010

SPT Closes the Season With No Regrets

by James E. Trainor III

The tagline for SPT's latest "Tales from the Writer's Room" offering is "Penniless at the End of My Life...What Great Timing!" As themes go, it's difficult to penetrate, somewhere in the realm of April's "I'd Rather Eat Dirt." For these shows, however, it's enough to point the writers in a general direction and they walk out a coherent path time and time again. This one struggles a bit, with a couple of spoofs of "The View" that don't really seem to fit, but the larger themes resonate, and the music, as always, keeps the show going smoothly and seamlessly.

This one seems to be about fate and choice, life, death and afterlife. There are many images of death, with the obligatory comic twist, from Archangel Gabrielle ("you can be whatever you want up here") to a wry bureaucratic "post-Mortem facilitator." There are seekers of great secrets, from a fortune-cookie writer who takes his job a little too seriously ("In Bed") to a woman who climbs a mountain to find a rather incompetent guru ("Great Guru"). The songs, from "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" to "Losing My Religion" and "Pocketful of Stars" recount a contemplative yearning, a melancholic crisis of identity. We're on a journey in search of meaning; in short, the drama of all life. Lest we forget the journey is in the steps, though, the show is peppered with tiny moments that shine.

Akwi J. Nji-Dawson's monologues are spread out here, barely speeches at all but brief, dramatic images. "A100" reminds us to rejoice in the little things, while "Graduated" shows us a darker journey. In "Pennies," finally, we're reminded how close the things we're looking for often are. A young child plucks a penny from a couch, and holds it up like the world's greatest treasure. "Look, mom! I told you we were rich!"

SPT's final installment of the season started two actors in the red - Jason Alberty and Adam Witte have prior engagements - but the remaining cast more than makes up for it with the help of some enthusiastic guests.

It's always refreshing to see Marty Norton perform. She commits wholeheartedly to a part with gut-wrenching honesty, no matter how silly or scary a scene. In "A Slice of Heaven" her nervous energy takes over the stage. In "Sara Dippity" she is hilarious as the bitter fortune teller Frau Den Schreude. In "Great Guru" the frustration of her breakdown is captivating and contagious.

Tim Boyle is a lot of fun, too. His turn as Bill Clinton on plugging his book "At Least I didn't..." is somehow as charming as it is sleazy. As the befuddled Guru in "Great Guru" he plays off Norton's energy quite well. He's particularly sharp as the afterlife's outreach agent in "The Kinder Gentler Death," mastering a linguistically dense patter than would make John Cleese reach for a thesaurus.

Lynne Rothrock is a versatile performer, and she fits in well on stage and with the band. Particularly memorable is her solo, "Louisiana 1927." The song, telling the story of the Great Mississippi Flood of '27, is made even more solemn in the aftermath of Katrina '05 (not to mention Cedar River '08).

Ron Dewitte joins the band again. He is a great guitarist and it's always fun to listen to him play. He jams well with the regulars and they go through a great variety of musical styles without once breaking stride.

Meanwhile, the regular cast is short two. Fortunately, Mary Sullivan and Akwi J. Nji-Dawson more than make up for it, performing the work, especially "You Can't Take it with You" with style, grace, and impeccable comic timing. After some hilarious physical comedy between Sullivan and Doug Elliot, the band brings it home with a rendition of "Life is a Highway." Here, as in "Get It While You Can," Jane Pini lays down some serious vocal power.

It's a strong ending to the show, and the season as a whole. The only drawback, however, is that the whole thing seems to have gotten two big for its britches. The Writer's Room shows have grown quite popular lately, and the Museum of Art space doesn't make for very good sightlines when the room is full. Hopefully, if the audience continues to grow, SPT will find a larger space. In the meantime, I suggest showing up early if you want a good seat.

Tales from the Writer's Room: Penniless at the End of My Life...What Great Timing! will be performed again on Saturday, June 19th at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. Doors open at 7:30; tickets are $20. Check SPT's website for more info.

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