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Pleasant surprises from the opening performances

20 May

Third of three posts I originally wrote for Dane101.com.

I was entertained immensely by the first two performances of You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery, a play I wrote with Rick Stemm that’s appearing at MercLab until the 25th. It was a thrill to see such exemplary work in the actors’ physical humor and character-driven comedy, and in the steampunk-influenced set design by Morgan Boland and costume design by Sydney Krieger. I had been to rehearsals last month and so was familiar with some of the unscripted bits director Sam White and the cast introduced, but there were several bits that were new for me and some overall things I wasn’t expecting but was nonetheless happy with.

The audience is essentially another character. The audience makes choices and participates in the other interactions we wrote into the script of course, but the connection between the audience, the Narrator (Jamie England), the Detective (Christopher Younggren), and the Doctor (Matthew A. Schrader) is much more tangible than I was expecting. It’s especially noticeable with the Detective, who doesn’t solicit choices like the Narrator but does somewhat antagonize the audience. Given this role for the audience, I sometimes wonder if the Detective is truly the protagonist or if the Doctor, who has to not only navigate the story’s challenges but convince the Detective to take part in the play and give the audience a satisfying show, is a sort of covert protagonist.

Christopher Younggren and Matt Schrader had some entertaining ad-libs in response to the audience the two nights I was there. Rick was in the front row those nights and at one point in the opening performance the Detective asked him something like “Are you proud of that?” in relation to some absurd line. The second night, when the Detective said something to elicit an audience “awww,” he said to Rick “Awww – you wrote it!”

The actors’ gratitude was as fulfilling as the audience’s responses. I expected that the most enriching part of this process would be hearing the audience laughing at funny lines and performances. But being thanked in person and in the program by the actors, hearing how much joy they were getting from the script, and seeing them develop friendships through their work on something I helped create were delightful as well. I’d seen all of the actors in other plays and was happy I could provide something they could have fun with and use to show talents they might not normally have a chance to.

The stage manager introduced the play. Like she did as the director of Rick’s and my Blitz Smackdown play, Bonnie Balke had some excellent aesthetic and practical ideas for the production of You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery. An example of the latter was using the program to identify the choices people would be called on to make over the course of the story. Given her contributions, how this play explicitly acknowledges that it is a play, and the challenge of literally not knowing what’s happening at each performance, I like the fact that our stage manager is the first person the audience hears from.

There is room for (relative) subtlety in the play. The Detective makes a crack near the end about being past the point of subtlety but there were comparatively understated moments (compared to things like a mime fight or a limerick contest, that is) that got good reactions. I’m thinking particularly of some amusing non-verbal communications from Daniel Torres-Rangel with respect to two props he carried in the first act, or the audience-wide sympathy Veronica Raulin got with a disappointed facial expression in the second act.

This production would get 13 Bartie nominations if it was eligible. Previously I thought 12 nominations, but it would also be a contender in the “Best Stage Kiss” category for an unscripted kiss I saw on the September 10 performance. It might even be eligible for “Most Thought Provoking Production,” as in “How is it possible that such a brilliant assembly of talent can exist?” This play has an excellent ensemble cast and outstanding entrances, sound design (Colin Woolston), lighting design (Spike Garrett), portrayals of non-homo sapiens, set design, costume design, belly laughs, poster design (Al Hart), and funny performances by actors/actresses. It’s a great comedy and could probably inspire its audiences to pursue a career in theater.

I give a pretty decent interview. These actually occurred prior to opening weekend. I’m not exactly known for being talkative but nonetheless managed to get some laughs in interviews with Alan Talaga and the Wisconsin Guys.

I’m warning up to the idea of an Aerosmith song appearing in a Victorian adventure spoof. No elaboration needed.

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