Over a Barrel 

Niagara Falls forms the backdrop to this summer’s most rewarding and whimsical comedy

Music City’s summer theatrical doldrums finally got energized last week with the opening of three new productions, all local premieres.

Music City’s summer theatrical doldrums finally got energized last week with the opening of three new productions, all local premieres. On balance, the best is Wonder of the World, a zany David Lindsay-Abaire comedy that receives spirited—if imperfect—treatment by Actors Bridge Ensemble.

The playwright is a favorite of the contemporary scene. His works typically feature whimsical interplay among goofy characters, their dialogue infused with mirthful, kitschy pop-culture allusions.

The backdrop here is Niagara Falls, where a young woman named Cass (Misty Lewis) has arrived to reevaluate her life. In particular, she’s thinking about her marriage to Kip (Eric Ventress), a friendly fellow with a weird fascination for Barbie doll heads.

On her bus journey, Cass meets Lois (Rachel Agee), a suicidal alcoholic intent on hurtling over the falls in a barrel. She also hooks up with Captain Mike (Henry Haggard), commander of the Maid of the Mist, the famous Niagara Falls tour boat. Meanwhile, a suspicious older couple (Debi Shinners and Billy Rosenberg) watch Cass’ every move.

What plot there is mostly involves Kip’s desire to reclaim his marriage, but in the interim Cass ticks off entries on her list of 200 things she’s always wanted to do—learn Swedish, wear a wig, have sex with a stranger and so forth.

Lindsay-Abaire’s script makes frequent reference to TV (WKRP in Cincinnati, The Newlywed Game), shopping at Costco and other iconic symbols of American pop culture. Yet there is also something serious about his inventive characterizations, which joyously remind the viewer of how cursedly imperfect we all are.

Jessika Malone, who’s making her professional directorial debut, stages the proceedings with workmanlike efficiency. But that’s about all she accomplishes.

Act 1’s fairly straightforward demands are met capably. But Act 2 offers challenges in blocking and rhythm that require more thought and imagination to maintain the farcical, freewheeling atmosphere.

In fact, we’re threatened with ennui as the play chugs its way through the lengthy climactic group therapy session led by a clown counselor (a funny idea nevertheless).

Fortunately, the actors are suitably cast and delightfully capricious. Special kudos go to the versatile Rebekah Durham, who handles six roles with breathless energy.

Mitch Massaro’s functional set keeps the loopy action moving. All the same, its “budget” look ultimately offers a disappointing sense of style.

Absurdist confrontation

For the ambitious TSU production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show, director Barry Scott has gathered a youthful cast of 13, who guilelessly tackle this absurdist, verbally rich play about racial prejudice.

First staged in 1959 at the Theatre de Lutece in Paris, Genet’s work, with its all-black cast, was originally intended for white audiences only. Indeed, the playwright stipulated that if the play was ever performed for a black audience, a white person should be invited to sit near the stage, illuminated by a spotlight. This kind of confrontational aesthetic is typical of Genet’s association with the so-called Theater of Cruelty, with its exaggerated style and use of parody. (Genet, ever the political activist, later arrived in America in 1970 to make a series of lecture appearances in support of the Black Panthers.)

Scott’s production avoids direct confron-tation, though the story is no less disturbing. While a white queen and her court, functioning as a kind of jury, look down from a raised platform, a troupe of black actors dressed as partygoers reenact the rape-murder of a white woman. The actors step in and out of character as they relate the tale, exposing their own neuroses and emotional confusion. Some speeches are heated, and there’s no doubting Genet’s intent to ratchet up the discomfort.

Yet with all due respect to the playwright and this earnest ensemble, The Blacks is more often than not an almost inscrutable work, so complexly layered that it’s virtually impossible to understand the first time around.

All of which makes for a long, decidedly frustrating evening of theater, despite the play’s visual splendor—Mark Collino’s sets and J. K. Hunter’s costumes are especially striking—and fine acting. Candra Clariette’s Act 2 soliloquy, a pensive meditation on lost Africa, is a standout moment. Chuck Mosieri, Tamiko Robinson, Sheerene Whitfield, Kelly Crisp, Melvin Ray and Tobyus Green also give poised performances.

Scott’s direction is always active and intensely motivated, and his young players are not wanting for passion. But successfully pulling off this cryptic piece was probably never in the cards.

Friends with music

A quartet of Belmont University students are currently onstage in Edges, a modest but surprisingly worthwhile new musical revue.

Think of Friends with music. The fresh-faced cast—James Lombardino, Maria Logan, Kara Farmer and Daniel Hainsworth—roll through a Rent-like pop-rock score dealing with such palpable issues of their generation as the perils of superficiality, career anxiety, a Facebook account and relationship travails.

Group numbers open and close the show. Sandwiched in between are duets and solos, by turns comic and edgy (well, only slightly).

Female fear of commitment is covered in “I’ve Gotta Run,” in which Farmer proves to have the voice of the evening. Logan also sings confidently, performing a lively tune called “Man of My Dreams” about a young woman facing the distressing possibility that her boyfriend might be gay. Hainsworth sings a song called “In Short,” which features a strange mean-spiritedness.

Lombardino is responsible for the understated direction. Knox Ewing handles the keyboard accompaniment with flair. Edges is by no means a serious piece, but it’s fun and animated. Theatergoers seeking light musical theater will be pleasantly entertained.

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