by Jeff Swearingen
Based on a concept by Dave Tenney
Produced by Bren Rapp
Direction by Jeff Swearingen
Scenic Design by Clare Floyd DeVries
Costume Design by Bren Rapp
Tex Patrello as The Critic, Mickey Blake
Chris Rodenbaugh as The Writer, Robert Grey
Marcus Miller as The Director, Stanley Miller
Doak Campbell Rapp as The Producer, Saul Solomon
Jaxon Beeson as The Actor, Guy Van
Laney Neumann as The Actress, Vanessa Verkamp
Taylor Donnelson as The Understudy, Maggie Simon
Marielle Wyatt as The Alcoholic, Hilary Doyle Blake
Jake Allen as The Impresario, Walter Goldstein
Tess Cutillo as The Janitor, Margaret Pilsner
Reviewed Performance: 8/1/2014
Reviewed by Richard Blake, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
It’s a play within a play with nonstop antics, wonderfully written characters and a very unique plot that draws laughter from start to finish. The comedy also showcases tremendous young talent with a rip-roaringly funny script that keeps you laughing so hard you cry. Basically take the movie “Weekend At Bernie’s” throw in some “Noises Off”, mix it up with some “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Carol Burnett and Friends”... then top it all off with the sheer genius of Mr. Swearingen and you have this world premiere hit!
It’s the 1950’s and Broadway is booming. Producers, writers and directors all have big dreams while theatre critics/columnists have the power to make those dreams come true. None was more powerful than Mickey Blake. When Blake is found dead in the “Tin Box Theatre” after a performance of the way Off-Off-Off Broadway production of the nine act “The Blighted Heart”; a trio of hapless but determined theater folk refuse to let their dream be deterred. Producer Saul Solomon, Writer Robert Grey and Director Stanley Miller hatch a plan to fake the review of their show and hide Blake’s death just long enough to let it hit the stands. A producer, writer and director working as a team... is that even possible?
There’s a reason Swearingen, a co-founder of Funhouse Theatre and Film has garnered numerous writing awards for his work, as well as awards and accolades for this production company. Predominantly using young actors, honing their skill sets and guiding them in the professionalism of the arts, Mr. Swearingen and Bren Rapp’s talents break through the glass ceiling with this production. Everything in the writing is perfect, his direction precise, and his casting is stellar. This, folks, is a show you have to get out and see before it closes, you really do.
The theatre tells the premise of the story in its promotions so I’m not giving anything away here. A theatre critic dies... I’ll hold a moment for the thunderous applause to subside now... then the producer, writer and director finally realize he’s dead, read his viciously damming review and madness continues from there. I have to say I was more than a bit un-nerved as I sat as a critic named Richard, a.k.a. Ricky Blake, with Funhouse’s writer, director and producer sitting behind me, watching “Mickey Blake” die and the play’s writer, director and producer deal with his corpse in the most hilarious ways. Every time they yelled, “Mr. Blake is dead!”, I cringed and looked over my shoulder, all the while laughing hysterically as the show unfolded. Irony can be just too funny sometimes, it really can.
The performance is mounted in Plano Children’s Theatre’s black box space which is perfectly suited for the show. It’s very intimate, bare bones, yet lends itself to a warm and inviting feeling. When I first looked at the set, I started taking scathing notes as to how awful it looked. The centerpiece is a terribly designed gazebo, looking dangerous and ready to fall at any moment, “moss” hanging from the ceiling, and odd set pieces in the wings. I quickly scratched out all those remarks when I realized it was supposed to look that bad for the play within the play, “The Blighted Heart”. Clare Floyd DeVries’ scenic design, with set construction by Dave Tenney, is perfect in its design, functionality and presentation. There are some things that occur I can’t reveal that brought the house down in full out laughter, and without this set design would not have happened. Job well done... very well done!
Lighting and sound design are not credited in the program, but are executed very well. The house lights come on, stage lights go out, and sound comes in and out exactly as it would while watching a rehearsal of any production. These elements add a great realistic feel to this over-the-top comedy and put the patrons right in the middle of it all... literally!
Costume design by Bren Rapp is another great success in this show. Every actor is well fitted, their costumes represent their role excellently, and nothing looks cheap or last-minute (unless it is supposed to, of course, for “The Blighted Heart”). Ms. Rapp’s costuming is done so well, you start to look at these young actors as if they are actually in the “Business of Show” and not young actors playing IN a show.
Now on to what really makes this production soar in success... the actors. I’ve worked a lot with children and youth theatres and I can safely say this is the best ensemble of young talent I’ve seen in a VERY long time! Ranging in age from pre-teen to nineteen years old, this group works like a well-oiled, seasoned group that’s been performing together for years. Some of them never, or very briefly, leave the stage throughout the entire production, and along with the large quantity of dialogue, is very impressive especially considering their ages. Congratulations to them all on a spectacular job.
Tex Patrello as The Critic, Mickey Blake is perfect in this role and I can’t laud enough praise on this actor who, by the way, doesn’t utter one single word or sound throughout the entire play! He’s seated in the audience, (FYI - we critics never sit in the front row... LOL, I know, I know it is for the staging) and over the course of the show is, for lack of a better word, mauled. He’s dropped, drug around the stage, thrown into walls, duct taped to other actors, stepped on and jumped on in a “dance” number and NEVER ONCE broke a smile or character even while the audience is howling with laughter. That is the truest example of perfection in acting, it really is. Bravo Mr. Patrello... bravo!
The Writer, Robert Grey, played by Chris Rodenbaugh, shines in his role. His choices in expression, movement and vocal inflection make you truly believe him as a tormented writer of a nine-act play, never budging when it comes to creative “differences” with his script. Even when Mr. Rodenbaugh is speaking from the bathroom (yes the actual theatre’s bathroom) he gets hearty laughs and applause. His physicality in the show is also deserving of praise. From pratfalls to sliding across the stage, Mr. Rodenbaugh never once misses a beat in the highly demanding comedic moments. He is perfectly cast in the role and takes it to great heights of theatrical success.
Marcus Miller as The Director, Stanley Miller is another shining star in the play. His character choices are right on target, comedic timing is perfect and line delivery impeccable. He goes from distraught angst to anxiety like a flip of a switch and does it perfectly. Watch him closely as he wanders through the audience in full out “director mode”... you’d think he is the actual thing!
Doak Campbell Rapp as The Producer, Saul Solomon creates one hell of a memorable character on stage! His representation is the epitome of a “Broadway Producer” (or what people think they are) every moment he’s on stage. Rapp chose a great Brooklyn, New York accent for the role and never once loses it or lets the accent wane. He brings an exciting freshness to the role, commands the stage when he’s supposed to, and allows you to somehow “fall in love” with this sleazy character. Watch for this young man in the future on stage and probably screen...he’s definitely got the acting chops for a successful career in either.
The Actor, Guy Van, played by Jaxon Beeson, probably has the hardest role to portray... a BAD actor, yet does it with finesse and perfection throughout the play. Contrary to popular belief, you do have to be an excellent actor to play a bad one, otherwise it will come off cheap and contrived, actually making you look a bad actor in real life. This young man rocks the stage with his “method” moments and generates roars of laughter from the audience repeatedly. Every moment Mr. Beeson is on stage is a pure joy.
Laney Neumann as The Actress, Vanessa Verkamp, who is the “diva”, I’m sorry... the ingénue of the play “The Blighted Heart”, is just stunning in the role. This young woman has some powerful looks and glances that say everything even when she’s not saying a word. We all know that person, the one that goes from pleasant to perfect bi**h quicker than you can blink. Well, Ms. Neumann plays that out in spades with style and attitude. Neumann holds your attention every moment, and with one look draws “ooo’s” and “oh-my’s” from the audience. Another wonderful job by a rising young actor!
The Understudy, Maggie Simon is played by Taylor Donnelson and is a true pleasure to watch perform. She has a style and grace not often seen in more seasoned actors. Her character choices are smart and well executed, with every line delivery and walk across the stage. She shows the innocence and drive of an understudy hoping to get the leading role someday, and then the power of that performer when she does land the role. Ms. Donnelson has a smile that lights up the stage only outdone by her tremendous talent.
Marielle Wyatt as The Alcoholic Hilary Doyle Blake, and wife of critic Mickey Blake, takes this role by the horns and runs with it to great success. Stumbling across the stage, falling, losing her heel, and barking at those around her is done expertly and without flaw. There is not a moment you don’t believe her in this role and her talent as an actor really comes through. It’s not easy to play drunk onstage (ironically, that’s a hugely funny part in the play with another character) but Ms. Wyatt pulls it off without a hitch.
Rounding out this impeccable ensemble are the two supporting actors Jake Allen as The Impresario, Walter Goldstein, and Tess Cutillo as The Janitor, Margaret Pilsner. Each in their own right brings great talent to their roles and truly make the story complete on stage. Trust me, the moment you hear Ms. Cutillo perform her audition piece for a role in “The Blighted Heart”, your sides will hurt from laughing.
Lately, a lot of the “bigger” theatres and production houses have been traveling shows back and forth in association with each other to expose great theatre to larger audiences. In my opinion, they need to look at this one from Funhouse Theatre and Film, take it and its extraordinary cast to more venues and let people see for themselves the future of great American Theatre... stemming from right here in North Texas!
Stiff has a limited run and the seating is limited in the theatre so take this moment right now to book your seats to see this remarkable world premiere, by an award-winning playwright and theatre, starring some of the most talented DFW young actors around.
PS: I believe I can now sleep soundly and stop looking over my shoulder... I think they’ll all approve of the review and there won’t be any “accidental” occurrences in my future as a critic.
Fun House Theatre and Film
Performed at Plano Children’s Theatre - Black Box Theatre
1301 Dolphin Drive #706
Plano, TX 75075
** LIMITED RUN THROUGH AUGUST 9th, 2014 **
Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Saturday-Sunday at 2:30 pm
Tickets are $8.00 for all seats and all patrons.
For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit: www.funhousetheatreandfilm.com or call the box office at 972-357-5092