Beertown was so ponderously bad in the early going that I thought of ducking out at intermission. So what kept me from leaving the Omaha Community Playhouse?
Well, there’s the problem of writing a review. And there’s the slim hope that this hodge-podge of scripted theater and the promise of a more interactive second act will do what this eternal optimist prays for: Please let them win me over before it’s over.
Turns out, the cast came close but I was left puzzling over what director Rachel Goldman wanted from them.
If you’ve seen the likes of the highly successful Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, you expect the usual cast members milling about in character, schmoozing with the audience. Unlike those wedding party stereotypes, they’re less quickly identifiable types with the exception of Wyckham Avery as Mayor Soch. She and director Goldman came to Omaha from dog and pony dc, the Washington D.C. company that originated the show.
Instead of the usual Playhouse program, arrivals are handed an agenda for the “20th Quinquennial Beertown 2015 Time Capsule Celebration.” The audience slaps on stickers with their names and becomes voters on which artifacts should be added to the time capsule and which “Ephemerals” should be excluded.
To sum up, much of the early scripted stuff was pretty awful. Much of the later interaction with the audience joining in the debate over what artifacts to add or exclude worked fairly well, even with the small house on preview night. But one was left wondering how many audience members were actually stooges with some advance preparation.
(I’d recommend bringing back little Emma every night. We’d seen the child actress in Chanticleer’s The Secret Garden and she was an entertaining contributor to the artifact debate.)
Now, back to the puzzling style of the performers. They ranged from relatively low-key to over-the-top characterizations of townsfolk.
For example, Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek, arguably Omaha’s best comedic male actor, gave us the quiet spokesman for a mentor group called Everyday Dads. He won laughs every time he joined the discussion and re-identified himself simply as “Dave.”
But the script gave him almost nothing to work with when he nominated a pair of work gloves for the time capsule. On the other hand, his real-life wife, Kim, was allowed to tell an entertaining story about her nominee, a meteorite that streaked by during a high school baseball game and landed in a nearby field.
Hmmm…why did the ensemble-written script give her a good story and saddle the others with dull or murky ones?
But lets talk about what worked. I expect you can hand Noah Diaz almost any role, in this case as State Representative Lawrence Pickel-Cooper, and he’ll make it interesting. He’s just a compelling presence on stage.
And the audience loved Christopher Scott as Ombudsman Edwin McFarlan who turns into a deer-in-the-headlights nervous wreck when he steps to the podium. Unlike most of the others, Scott and Diaz hammed it up vigorously.
That’s not to say the likes of Melissa King as the archivist, Adelaide Waldrop as the Mayor’s daughter and Brennan Thomas didn’t add to the fun in less flamboyant fashion. Thomas was especially appealing as Arthur, editor of the Beertown Bugle, who now and then interviewed audience members in kindly encounters.
If it wasn’t a season when both the Kansas City Royals and the Chicago Cubs were in the playoffs, it would be tempting to return and see how all this works night after night. But then I’d have to sit through the ponderous first act setup.
And I’m not sure I’d ever figure out what the cast was doing in the endless series of poses and other interim antics. Or how the Washington Post named it to their top-10 show list in 2012. My guess is that the list-maker was overly-impressed with the concept of devised theater.
Beertown runs Oct. 16 to Nov. 15, 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays in the Howard Drew Theatre at the Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass St. Tickets are $36 adults, $22 students, available at TicketOmaha.com or by calling 402.553.0800.