When one goes to see a community theater production, the focus is usually on “theater” – that refined end product that transports an audience to another place and, at best, provides a transformative experience. In Rick Abbot’s comedy, “Play On!” the focus is instead on “community” – the dedicated people who make the magic of theater happen.
This comedic look behind the scenes of a local theater troupe is the next offering in the 2018-19 season of the Chequamegon Theater Association, on stage at Rinehart Theater in Ashland from February 1-10.
“Play on!” opens with a rehearsal of a new play titled “Murder Most Foul”, written by local playwright Phyllis Montague (Karen Swanstrom). This mysterious murder isn’t particularly good – the awkward exposure and outdated storylines are hilarious – and the playwright is an eyesore to work with. She continues to make drastic changes to the script just days before the play opens. But Phyllis agreed to let the troupe use their work royalty-free, which means the earnings from the play could actually put the organization in the dark. Strong motivation, indeed.
The group works through muffled lines, a behind-the-scenes romance between Violet (Becca Moore) and Billy (Kevin Riddle), two actors Polly (Laura Rovi) and Saul (Matt Nemec) who despise each other, and the constant interference of Phyllis. That’s enough for director Gerry Dunbar (Gregory John) to lose his temper more than once.
If Act I has an audience wondering if this play will ever be opened successfully, Act II, the dress rehearsal, creates even more doubt. Missed sound cues, hilarious lines and even more interference from the dotted playwright make this dress rehearsal anything but confidence building.
But, miraculously, the show continues and in Act III we see the entire opening night of “Murder Most Foul”. A triumph is not. But as the actors work their way through this wreckage of a performance, the audience will laugh the whole way.
Director Presley Nuutinen, one of CTA’s rising young generations of actors and directors, demonstrates that she has a skillful hand with comedy, keeping the timing quick and the directing suitably wacky.
The whole CTA did something amazing – it might seem like it would be easy to pretend to ignore a row, but remembering exactly how to change it in three different ways in three different acts is quite an achievement. impressive.
It is not necessary to have been involved in community theater to recognize the “types” of community theater that populate the play, but those who have recognized it will likely recognize them.
As director Gerry Dunbar, Gregory John is alternately cuddly, understanding and as demanding as one can be when working with a group of volunteers. He and his stage manager Aggie (Laura Comer) and his technician Louise (Beth Kurtz) can recognize the flaws in the play (and the cast), but they’ll never say stop.
Bradley Lemire and Laura Rovi are the “couple that acts” – Henry and Polly Benish. They’ve also managed to make a friend of the playwright – who seems to give Polly a bigger role every time they invite her over to dinner.
Drew Rekemeyer, is “high school student” Marla Smith. (And, yes, Rekemeyer is a high school student). She’s the one who studies biology offstage and worries about getting into trouble with her parents when rehearsals are late. Of course, she has the role of the maid.
As the caustic Saul Watson, Matt Nemec throws beards at his fellow actors – that is, until he bites a bit too much in Act III. So we don’t know what he’s going to say next.
Becca Moore as Violet performs wonderfully, as does Kevin Riddle as Billy. It is this couple who ends up transforming the intimacy of the theater into real intimacy.
And as the alternately funny and demanding playwright Phyllis Montague, Katherine Swanson is exceptional.
“Play on!” shows how just about anything can go wrong in a community theater production. And that makes it right.