Friday, January 11, 2008

opening-night review of "Laughing Stock"

on Spokane Civic Theatre's Main Stage through Feb. 2

Well, the theater people will love it. But will it get the same amused and affectionate response from non-theatrical Muggles?
In Laughing Stock (on the Main Stage at the Civic through Feb. 2), playwright Charles Morey has fashioned a backstage farce -- with sentimental, we-love-theater scenes appended -- that's receiving a very good if flawed production from director Troy Nickerson's cast and crew.
With several exceptional performances, recognizable character types, overt appeals to doing what we love most, technical accomplishment -- and a parody of "Dracula" that's among the funniest stage-farce sequences I've ever seen -- Nickerson has assembled a very enjoyable show.
A summer stock theater in New Hampshire gathers its actors (varied in commitment and talent level) to put on -- in repertory, one night after another -- a farce, a horror fantasy, and a classic tragedy. The mix of genres and personalities leads to shenanigans and fiascoes both in front of the theatrical curtain, behind it, and even during rehearsals. We witness rehearsals for both Dracula and Charley's Aunt along with performance-snippets of Dracula and Hamlet. The artistic director is idealistic; the business manager pinches pennies. The intense leading man is in hot pursuit of the bimbo, who's totally starting to understand this whole acting process, you know? Other varieties of actor on display include the jaded, the doddering, the inept and the drunken. The tech director and the interns are way overworked, and there's an unseen, offstage Philistine old biddy whose taste is shallow but who must be appeased because, well, she's rolling in it.
While the script of Laughing Stock gets too insider-y with all its Ibsen jokes and pushes the magic-of-theater angle too hard, it will still appeal to anyone who's ever pursued any avocation out of love (and not love of profit). Even better, in a solid all-around cast, several standout performances add special luster to this show. As Mary the bimbette, Tanya Barton has to be hubba-hubba eye candy and succeeds. Mary wants to be taken seriously as an actress even if her idea of an audition involves doing a lap dance; Barton oozes sexiness without making the easy dumb-blonde choices. She shares several scenes Patrick McHenry-Kroetch as her leading man. McHenry-Kroetch finds multiple motivations in his character and plays them all: the overly conscientious, overly self-focused Method actor; the hang-loose horndog; the scenery-chewing thespian. Playing Dracula, he wants to bring his character to life, even if he is one of the Undead.
Paul Villabrille plays a reluctant young actor as his usual shlub, though there's some high jinks with a moving prop (a four-poster bed) that has Villabrille dodging and darting around to save his own neck -- and it's a masterpiece of physical comedy. Susan Hardie pipes up with her stage manager's sarcastic remarks, then takes solace from a bottle of gin until she finds her character arc in coming back around to what made her love theater in the first place.
As has been the case so often in his years of service to the Civic, scenic and lighting designer and technical director Peter Hardie deserves great credit for getting a complicated show right. Imagine trying to get dozens of fast-paced lighting and sound cues deliberately wrong. There were onstage miscues involving flowing capes, flying bats, moving beds and sleeping stagehands that had me laughing so hard I was crying -- and I wasn't alone.
There's a "physical improvisation" (groan!) scene led by Nancy Gasper -- aggressively opinionated as the revolutionary, radical lesbian director, her hair pulled back and her postures mostly macho -- that pays off in lines like "My orangutang is not bisexual" that are even funnier than that line is all by itself.
Audience love onstage chaos, with plenty of people running around making fools of themselves, and Laughing Stock obliges. They like being involved in the putting-together of a scene, too -- so when the elaborate "tea gag" from Charley's Aunt (an intricate gag around a tea table) is pulled off flawlessly, audience members responded with delighted hand-clapping, as if they'd actually been part of the rehearsal themselves.

There are, however, some slow and flat portions of the evening. As the artistic director, Thomas Heppler has some cell-phone conversations with the theater's patroness that don't underline or time the jokes well. There's an is-he-gay-or-straight? exchange in which the nervous pauses are mistimed with the dialogue, deflating the comedy. As the "executive managing administrative director," Gavin Smith gets saddled with a way overextended, unfunny bit about pencils; Smith does what he can, but the problem is mostly the playwright's. And for a character who's eventually referred to as "terminally embittered," David Gigler doesn't seem nearly bitter enough in an extended speech about just how tough it is to get an acting job on Broadway -- or, for that matter, anywhere. And finally, all those inserted we-sure-love-theater scenes just seem calculated, especially when they pile up near the evening's end.

Two and three-quarter hours (even when including an intermission) may be simply too long for comedy. Of course, especially in its final scene, comedy isn't all that Laughing Stock is pursuing.
Unfortunately, when it comes to love of acting, Morey protests too much, over-emphasizing how folks get bitten by the theater bug.
It strains credulity when a dozen people during a performance of Hamlet pause during all their backstage bustling around just because Thomas Heppler is supposedly delivering Hamlet's advice to the players ("Speak the speech, I pray you") so movingly. As if that weren't enough, the final scene predictably treats a couple of actors who've grown tired of their profession as stand-ins for the audience. There _is_ something special about being part of a theater cast, but special pleading on its behalf doesn't make it any more grand. Better to let the universal appeal of Morey's theme come across more gently, as an appeal to all people everywhere who take pride in hobbies and obsessions that pay off in satisfaction but not in dollars.
"Laughing Stock" takes an over-long first act to achieve its setup, but the payoff in Act Two, Scene Two -- the everything-goes-wrong "Dracula" parody -- is worth buying a ticket for all by itself.


At January 12, 2008 1:33 AM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Finished at 1:31 am.


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