I recently saw two local productions of plays that are about plays. This genre is nothing new, of course - Shakespeare himself used the “framing story” of actors putting on plays in The Taming of the Shrew, and used a play-within-the-play in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Since then, various playwrights have used the idea, as have screenwriters. Sure it’s self-referential and meta, but it can be funny and effective if done right.
In this case, I saw two very different plays: [title of show] at Stars Playhouse, and The Play That Goes Wrong at The Empty Space.
[Title of Show]
This one is interesting because it is a musical, and is very much about itself. Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell get an announcement of a theater festival, and decide to write and submit a musical by the deadline…which is only three weeks away. With the assistance of two actor friends, Heidi Blickenstaff, and Susan Blackwell, they put together [title of show] - which is about them creating the musical. By the way, those are both the real names of the people involved and the characters. According to Bowen and Bell, as they attempted to write a play, they realized that the conversations they were having about that were more interesting than any of their other ideas.
With this idea, then, they added songs (which utilize common musical tropes as well as theater in-jokes), and made a show. My wife is a huge musical fan, so she got a lot of jokes that I missed, although I still found the show funny. For one thing, references are made to some rather obscure musicals, and specific actors that I wasn’t familiar with, but she was.
For this production, the four parts were played by Markelle Taylor (Hunter), Salvador Vidaurri (Jeff), Kit Fox (Heidi), and Charlotte Smith (Susan). Oh, and there is a fifth character - Larry (Kelsey Morrow) who is the ever-present pianist accompanying the songs. In this case, they pre-recorded the music, and had Morrow “play” along. While I couldn’t see the keys at the angle they had the piano, she did use sheet music, and to the extent I could see, was actually playing the notes. Milli Vanilli this was not.
I thought the cast had good chemistry, and that carried the production. The weak point was the vocals. Because of the small space, the voices weren’t amplified, so they had to carry it on projection alone. The problem was, the voices weren’t balanced, with Smith having the best volume, and Vidaurri tending to get buried. Pitch was fine, even with the challenging acoustics, but the blend wasn’t equal. This is the challenge for small-town theater, of course. There are a certain number of people who can sing, dance, and act, and outside of a very few, there are compromises in one facet or another.
As I said, I thought the cast chemistry was good, and perhaps that was given priority. Vidaurri as the soft-spoken Jeff played well against Taylor, who was highly expressive and more emotional. Taylor has an incredibly flexible and expressive face, particularly his mouth - every insecurity of the character was on display. I last saw Kit Fox in the two-actor production of The Turn of the Screw, and I like her acting. She was mostly the straight-man in this story, the struggling actor trying to get gigs, and unsure what to make of Susan, the rather mad-cap, over-the-top counterpart. Smith was perfect in the role, delightfully goofy.
I’ll also mention that I thought the songs, “Change It, Don’t Change It” and “Awkward Photo Shoot” were particularly well done. The choreography for the photos was impressive, with the actors changing poses on beat.
The Play That Goes Wrong
This production was, hands down, the most hilarious thing I have seen this year. The kids and I couldn’t stop laughing - particularly my 11 year old, who apparently is just the right age for this sort of humor. A number of our favorite local actors (and a number of friends) were in this one, which made it even better.
A local drama society puts on a production of “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” and it…goes wrong. This framing starts before the play itself. Director and do-everything Chris Bean (played by Tevin Joslen) is trying to get everything ready, from apologizing for the mis-printed programs to fuming at the tech crew for the problems with the set.
As becomes apparent once the play starts, the tech crew is very much part of the play. Particularly once the set starts falling apart, and the actors need replacement after accidents.
I won’t get into the plot of the murder mystery. It is pretty much a spoof of classic British whodunnits, particularly Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. It has a number of twists, naturally, and suspicion falls on each character in turn.
But of course, everything goes wrong. Actors forget their lines, get stuck in repeating loops, overact, underact, misplace props, improvise badly, and so on. The sound and lighting has its own issues, with spotlights pointing at waists, musical cues coming at the wrong time, and things failing at the worst possible time. And then there is the set, which keeps falling apart until it finally collapses completely at the end. The set design was amazing, honestly - The Empty Space does more with their tiny venue than you would think possible.
There were so many great scenes, but a few really stood out. The play requires copious quantities of scotch, but the bottle is accidentally poured into the communication tube. The actor playing the butler, Perkins (Jesus Fidel) grabs the only thing at hand, a toxic bottle of industrial alcohol. Thenceforth, whenever an actor takes a drink, they immediately spit it out violently, then declaim how good it is. In one of the repeating loops, aristocrat Thomas Collymore (Perrin Swanson) asks for a drink, slams it, spits, and says “God, I needed that!” So yes, plenty of spit flies - it isn’t the most hygienic play, I suppose.
The female love interest, Florence, is initially played by Tessa Ogles, but she is knocked out in a mishap with a sticking door, and is replaced by two different actors in succession (stagehand Kelsey Morrow, then Nick Ono in improvised drag.) But when she comes to, she feuds with her replacement, who doesn’t want to give up the role.
And then there is that opening scene where murder victim (Matthew Borton) is constantly stepped on. As his bio says, “[Borton] has also died in several other productions and is looking forward to doing it for you tonight.”
Too many other hilarious bits to mention. But I should give a call out to the cast members (Liz Bomer, Matthew Borton, Jesus Fidel, Marina Gradowitz (longtime friend), Jeremiah Heitman (glad to see him back on stage), Tevin Joslen, Kelsey Morrow (two back-to-back plays - does she ever sleep?), Tessa Ogles, Nick Ono, Alex Singh, and Perrin Swanson (no relation, but we’ll take him) who were all outstanding. And also director Ronnie Warren, whose vision for his shows is always excellent.