The Voice of The Prairie

By Philip Pearce

IN RECENT MONTHS The Listening Place has been missing from the local stage to make room for exhibitions at the Monterey Art Museum. But readers’ theater returned to Monterey last weekend with a vigorous, well-acted version of John Olive’s The Voice of the Prairie

Having never seen or read the play I was expecting spacious skies, rolling tumbleweeds and Woody Guthrie ballads. But it was all about the people caught up in the precarious early days of middle American local radio.

An amiable small-town story teller named David Quinn is dragged, protesting, into the kind of rattletrap prairieland radio studio you saw lampooned in O Brother Where Art Thou? A tinhorn wheeler-dealer named Leon Schwab wants him to help fill the breaks between vinyl record music with recollections of his early years as a sidekick of his irrepressible Irish immigrant father Poppy Quinn. David’s rambling tales turn into such an unexpected listening sensation that he becomes a star of the newborn NBC. But his success and the stories he tells are shadowed by the memory of a brave and psychically gifted blind girl named Frankie. She figured in his roving adventures with Poppy but disappeared one night without trace.

Carl Twisselman is marvelous, both as the nervous and reluctant Quinn of the 1920s and his garrulous, whiskey-drinking parent of 1895. He hits all the right comedy notes without turning Poppy Quinn into a stage Irish buffoon and as David he grows convincingly from a bucolic filler act earning fifty cents a performance to a likeable but shrewd (“Give me the money!”) star of the New York airwaves.

Richard Boynton, as always, has irresistible bouncing energy and a fine rapport with the audience as the sneaky but appealing Schwab.

Two gifted and assured York students take on the challenging roles of the teenaged David and the miraculously gifted Frankie whom he admires and comes to love as they whirl around the tricks and wheezes of a Poppy Quinn who could show Schwab a trick or two when it comes to wheeling and dealing. Tobey Malone is at times dynamic, at others wonderfully wistful as young David. And Sara Butler has charm with an underlying air of something scarily supernatural in her performance as a blind girl with second sight.

A couple of familiar delights of local theater round out the cast. Pat Horsley is emotionally powerful as a blind school teacher of the Prohibition era whose name—Frances—suggests she may be more than just a passing acquaintance of the mature David. And Fred Herro makes convincing shifts of character and dialect in a succession of bad-guy characters including a lecherous Southern clergyman who works his wiles on the desirable Frances.

Robin McKee Williams operates the sound board and directs in ways that keep the action clear and avoid tying actors to their music stands. Characters move, confront one another, pummel and sock each other, shout across the audience to sound booth engineers.

The script is both appropriate and tricky for reader’s theater presentation.  Appropriate in that a talk and music radio background work well with actors stationed at music stands and at times working the audience as broadcast listeners. Tricky in that The Voice of the Prairie is a long play with far more plot and sub-plot than I have described. It made for a long Sunday afternoon, though the cast kept the energy unfailingly high. Act 2 seemed at times unnecessarily loud and active, though with wonderful line projection and clear character drawing. And the complicated story was crystal clear but there was a tendency to shout and gesture with more vigor and intensity than the events of the story always justified or made necessary.

Never boring, it plays for one more weekend, Saturday at York School starting at 2 pm and again at the Monterey Art Museum on Sunday at 1:30.


The Drowsy Chaperone

By Philip Pearce

SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO a show called Oklahoma! taught us that musicals should be relevant, logical and true to life. But that hasn’t stopped producers and audiences from looking back and affectionately spoofing those venerable pre-Rodgers and Hammerstein song and dance fantasies that were about as socially significant as a cheese soufflé.

Even as I write, Jewel Theatre is cheerfully sending up the sixties (minus the politics and protests) in a confection called Suds. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Boy Friend have offered playgoers clever pastiches of the kind of mindless melodic fluff that filled Broadway theaters back in Prohibition days.   

The Drowsy Chaperone, which has just opened a four weeks’ run at The Western Stage in Salinas, goes those shows one better. It doesn’t just imitate a 1928 fun and flappers musical. It serves it up garnished with wry and informed comments on the razzle-dazzle period quirks and clichés in what’s happening on stage while it’s up there happening. 

Our commentator and guide is a musical theater enthusiast known simply as The Man in Chair. He starts out as a voice talking in the dark about how an audience feels waiting in the dark for the stage lights to come up on a show. When they do come up, sure enough, there’s the chair and there he sits ready to chat us up and lead us through the ins and outs of the performance. A rumpled charmer with lots of theatrical smarts he’s identified in the program as David Norum. 

Beside his chair there’s an old-time record player and he tells us he’s going to feed it a digitally re-mastered LP of an old Broadway song and dance hit. And as the record spins, the stage will fill with the characters, props, costumes and frothy activity of a 1928 musical called, you guessed it, The Drowsy Chaperone.

Sure enough, as the record rolls, we meet the lithe and delectable Heather Osteraa as glamorous Janet Van de Graaff who’s abandoning Broadway stardom to marry eligible millionaire Robert Martin. She’s adamant that matrimony means an end to all of her theatrical “Showing Off,” an assertion she makes by singing and dancing her way through a song of that name in an extended glitzy production number in which she does nothing if not show off.       

As her fiancé Robert, Kyle Richlin wins top athletic honors of the evening by agreeing it’s bad luck for a groom to see his bride on their wedding day, so he spends the pre-wedding hours tap dancing, socializing and roller skating around while wearing a blindfold. 

Scott Free blusters and chews his cigar like Edward Arnold in the role of a Broadway producer named Feldzieg (get it?). He’s got a dumb blonde girlfriend named Kitty (Niki Moon, all energy and bafflement) who is perpetually waiting in the wings for her Ruby Keeler big moment in the spotlight. Feldzieg ignores or distracts her, obsessed with the shock of losing a million dollar show-biz investment like Janet to mere matrimony. He connives with a couple of comedy gangsters right out of Kiss Me Kate, played by Eric Wishnie and Noah Esquivel, to sabotage the Martin/Van de Graaff nuptials. 

They hire an allegedly irresistible Latin lover named Aldolpho, played with explosive erotic determination by the amazing Justin Gaudoin, to seduce the bride on her wedding morning. Trouble is, Janet’s boudoir is currently occupied by her drowsy chaperone dozing on the bed and the mentally challenged Aldolpho mistakes the chaperone for the bride. 

In a performance where the Western Stage cast, apart from David Norum, all portray 1920s actors who in turn have parts in The Drowsy Chaperone, Jen Brooks is all Theda Bara vampery in the title role. But the portrayer of Janet’s slinky chaperone turns out to be a legendary Broadway diva whose legend is beginning to sag. So her encounters with Janet are played with a nice subtext of politely bitchy efforts to upstage this upstart Broadway idol. Complicated enough for you? It takes the guiding hand of that man in the chair to make your way through this witty script.     

Everything happens at the classy estate of a moneyed socialite named Mrs. Tottendale. Mindy Pedlar is a ditzy delight as a vague lady rescued from blunders by an untiring butler named Underling, acted with a lot of Arthur Treacher panache by Ron Perez. Together, these two perform a couple of those vapid, purportedly comic routines supporting cast members are forced to go through out front by the footlights while stars and stagehands are busy behind the big drop curtain setting up for the next big upstage musical number.  

True to American musical tradition, almost everyone with a speaking part ends up married to someone else with a speaking part. The exceptions are those two comedy gangsters and Robert’s delightfully frantic best man George (Sarah Horn), who anticipates every detail except hiring a minister. To the rescue comes jodhpured Jaqui Hope’s swaggering Trix the Aviatrix. She agrees to act like a ship’s captain authorized to solemnize marriages if everyone will just climb aboard her plane and say “I Do, I Do in the Sky.”   

Manipulating the show through an LP record is a theatrically brilliant idea on the part of its creators Lisa Lambert, Greg Morrison, Bob Martin and Don McKellar. It means Norum’s ingratiating character can halt things while he wants to make a point and start them up again when he’s finished making it. At least that’s what is supposed to happen. The recording apparatus does occasionally strike back, notably when everybody on stage suddenly starts to lurch to and fro repeating the same split second’s worth of dialogue over and over again because the LP needle is stuck in a faulty groove.   

Under some astute direction from Jon Patrick Selover and Joe Niesen, the cast manage these and other tricky moves with deft timing and impressive comic assurance.  

The fact that what happens on stage always depends on a phonograph record also produces, at the start of Act 2, the funniest and most elaborately staged joke I have ever seen played on an unsuspecting audience. But you’re going to have to buy a ticket and see this wonderful show to find out about that.   

It plays weekends on the Hartnell Mainstage through December 8th, with a “re ACTIONS” audience feed-back session with cast and creative crew after the November 25th matinee.