Play On! – A Love Letter to Community Theatre

October 5, 2019

Play On! takes us behind the scenes of a nearby community theatre’s latest production. They have the good fortune, or misfortune, of having the playwright present during rehearsals for constant rewrites, right up to the opening night performance. “The show must go on”, but will it?


Plays that take us backstage to witness all the craziness of actually producing a piece of theatre are a staple in comedy. While this particular play doesn’t break any new ground, it is a funny look at some of the strangest people you will ever meet -- theatre people.


We are introduced to our entire cast fairly quickly. The first act takes place during a rehearsal of Murder Most Foul, the first play written by Phillip Montague (Leeds Bird) who has a bad habit of adding new lines and scenes every time he visits the theatre. Director Gerry Dunbar (Michael Wisniewski) works hard to keep order within his cast, with the help of overwhelmed stage manager Aggie (Erin Frye) and sarcastic techie Louise (Avery Weller). His cast is made up of all the expected community theatre types. Henry and Polly Benish (John Tanner and Debbie Lake), the overdramatic theatre couple, Violet Imbry (Keara Dixon) and Billy Carewe (Steven Axtell), the young actors with questionable talent, Saul Watson (William McCartney), the know-it-all actor, and Marla “Smitty” Smith (Jean Ciampi), the newbie who struggles with line memorization and stage fright.


In an added challenge, we not only see our community theatre actors interacting with each other when offstage, but we also see them transform into their murder mystery roles onstage. This requires them to play their real life roles realistically, but to also be able to act “badly” when “onstage”, which provided some of the biggest laughs of the night. Ciampi was a particular stand-out throughout the production, jumping from excited during rehearsals when she would nail a line or entrance, to being nervous and hesitant on opening night in front of an audience. The cast as a whole interacted very well throughout, creating relationships with one another, whether genial or spiteful. This was most apparent in the antagonistic interactions between Lake and Axtell’s characters, as well as between Lake and McCartney. Watching all of them interact in the background was a treat.


Full disclosure, my biggest issue with this play was the script. As stated above, I believe it does well in giving you a snapshot of what a community theatre production is like, giving us three different “versions” of the show. Rehearsal, final dress rehearsal, and then opening night. The problem comes when the actors start to snipe and fight with one another. Almost everyone is angry and yelling and storming offstage at the outset. With so many big reactions so early, they don’t really have anywhere to go for the rest of the show. This also comes into play with some of the sight (and sound) gags. The set up to most of the gags happens early in the first act, then we see the gag in the second act, and again in the third act. There is a rule of three in comedy, you build up a situation or gag through two instances throughout the show, with the third instance being the punchline, delivering the biggest laugh. The problem is that most of these gags didn’t build, they were simply repeated the same way all three times, which will get maybe a chuckle, but no real payoff. I am uncertain whether this was an issue with the script or production, but did cause a few of the gags to go stale by the time they popped up in the third act.


The technical designers for the show also had a particular challenge in showing a theatrical production in various stages. Lighting design by David Newsham interestingly seemed to change throughout the first act, with different colors and intensities moving through the set. I took this as the community theatre’s designer tweaking within the show “tweaking” their design during the rehearsal, but by act three, which was “opening night”, most of the interesting color was no longer utilized during the actual “performance,” which was a confusing omission. Sound by Tom Randolph was an especially tricky design for this production. All the actors wore mics, to allow for us to hear the various things happening backstage, but this caused a lot of backstage dialogue to come very loudly through the speakers, which could overpower what was happening simultaneously onstage. The set design and construction team did a nice job in creating a set that was improved upon as we got closer to opening night, furniture and props were added, new painted backdrops were moved in, which allowed the audience an altered stage picture to see each time the curtain opened.


If you’re looking for a talented cast creating some funny moments with challenging material, this is the show for you. A love letter to the community theatre we all know and love being a part of, whether onstage, backstage, or in the audience.


 Performances of Play On! continue this weekend, Saturday, October 5th at 7:30pm and Sunday, October 6th at 3pm and continue next weekend, October 10th-13th, with evening performances Thursday and Friday at 7:30pm and matinee performances Saturday and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are available online or from the box office Monday-Friday, 9am-1pm and during the run of the show: either in person or by phone at 989-893-5555.

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