By Philip Pearce
Too many live theater audiences are a sea of bald heads and blue rinses. At least two local companies are trying to do something about that. Western Stage turns over its Studio Theater each summer to a “2 x 4 Bash” of full-length plays cast, rehearsed, and mounted by a team of young performers, directors and techies. Last week MPC did something similar with a program of inter-linked one-acts showcasing the impressive talents of a cast of current and recent MPC arts students. That and a Studio Theater full house of nearly all student-aged spectators made for an exciting first night. A computer science major I talked to during intermission said it was his first experience of theater at MPC. “I had no idea they’d be this good!” he enthused, and I had to agree.
“Heaven and Hell on Earth” is the brainchild of local actor and MPC student Sam Fife, whose director’s notes recount his search through a multitude of one-acts for pieces that would link roughly with a theme of life and death, heaven and hell.
So there’s a succession of Act One vignettes that introduce the Four Horsemen of St. John’s biblical apocalypse in some darkly comic and often blatantly raunchy antics. There are also sequences featuring secular end-of-life figures like the Angel of Death and the Grim Reaper.
I thought other less obviously theological choices, on the whole, were more compelling than the supernatural stuff, notably a litany of the thoughts of a girl named Dani (Tatum Tollner) during the three seconds it takes her to fall to her death from the top of a tall building.
Fife has wisely chosen some material that fits only very loosely into the heaven/hell theme. Interspersed between other items are segments of a play called Quake. Here a girl named Lucy, played with great charm by Savannah Brewer, hopefully keeps trying to form relationships in various contexts and with various people till her hopeful search turns scary.
There are some hilarious selections, especially an extended series of quick encounters between a cheery suburbanite named Ellen (Amanda Schemmel) and her frighteningly weird neighbor Roger, played by Jeremy Villucci, with the compulsive, puppet-like fits and starts of a junior John Cleese.
It’s a cast that acts and interacts with an ensemble teamwork that makes the First Act like a darkly comic musical review minus the music. That the underlying ideas and world view are sometimes a bit foggy hardly matters in the company of such engaging performers. To mention individual names is really a disservice to others who are equally worthy of praise.
Which brings us to Act 2. It consists mostly of a full-length one-act play called Tracks which director Fife says was the catalyst for the whole program. I’m apologetic but I would be hard to convince that it isn’t the weakest link in the Heaven and Hell on Earth chain of events. Undoubtedly more immediately accessible than a lot of the earlier skits, it is also much more stereotyped and conventional.
The cast do their utmost with a succession of character types who meet in a subway station and discover they are dead. They spend the play confessing their sins, crimes and misdemeanors and trying to decide whether the train they are waiting for goes to heaven or to hell.
It’s not just that it’s the sort of idea that’s been done before. The main trouble with Tracks is that it’s built around a full dozen assorted characters, each of whom has to troop in, repetitiously establish his or her back story and reveal a besetting sin which may send them to hell or squeeze them into heaven. All of this within the half-hour to forty-minute limits of a typical one-act. The result is a roster of quickly understood plot challenges and easily recognized character stereotypes. The uncredited playwright doesn’t help matters by offering too much of the kind of religious platitude and uplift that the edgy and controversial first act seemed to have been at pains to avoid.
At two hours and fifteen minutes playing time, the show could have been shortened, with the interesting First Act material rearranged for two acts and the tube train story dropped. I’ve experienced some of my own creative catalysts and discovered they are sometimes the element that has to be cut in the final mix.
The evening ends with the full-cast in OT, a pleasant spoken choral tribute to unity and teamwork. But it’s not enough to hide the fact that the second half of the evening is a bit of a letdown.
Still, it would be a shame to miss this wonderful company of young players, who are in action on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2 p.m. through April 27, but with no Easter Sunday matinee.
Photo by Sam Fife