This is looking like a great year for the production of original works in the Port City—and it’s not even February yet. But so far we’ve had “Gallery” by CJ Tuor, “Check Please” by Jonathan Rand, and of course Theatre NOW’s weekly original show for kids, “Super Saturday Fun Time.” Add to the list five short plays by John Grudzien presented under the title “Pole Vaulting over Skyscrapers,” currently showing at Big Dawg Productions’ Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street, and one can see a blossoming trend.
Directed by Steve Vernon, the plays utilize many of the same performers throughout the evening, giving it a “summer repertory theatre” feel. This allows several people to really demonstrate a range of ability and skill, while the playwright flexes his muscles with farce, drama, and satire. It takes a lot of courage to put on an original show, so even when there are rocky parts, one is still impressed with the effort and the work. All in all, it’s a great evening filled with laughter, tears, and everything in between.
A creative soft opening from the curtain speech takes the audience straight into “Waiter!”—a gangster farce with rhyming couplets. FBI agent Luke (Shane Forbes Bates) goes undercover to a mob-owned restaurant and falls for the mob boss’s daughter, Ariel (Lauren Berg). It is hard to steal attention away for J.R. Rodriguez’s portrayal of the mob boss—which might be best described as outdoing Brando’s parody of Brando in “The Godfather.” But Bates and Berg do relish in the spotlight together, emoting and generally taking every decision farther over the top than the audience thought possible. The writing is really creative, especially the use of rhyme, and Vernon accentuates each joke with very physical direction that is so real, it feels warm.
Audrey McCrummen had to build and dress a very functional set that could accommodate five separate locations. It is not her usual hyper-detailed, yet functional work. But it is solid as it morphs from restaurant, to coffee shop, to garden club, to air port lounge, and finally underground bar. This choice, among other advantages, make set changes fast enough that the audience isn’t sitting in the dark for long stretches of time. It is functional and lets the actors shine, which is what good set design should do.
The transition to a Port City Java for “In The Rain” is fast and gets everyone onstage as a coffee-shop patrons to witness Lynette O’Callaghan’s bad behavior in public, and Suzanne Nystrom’s generous empathy to this obnoxious stranger. Writing characters of the opposite gender is tough. This piece only has dialogue by the two women, and though the premise is interesting, there is something that is not quite resolved about it yet.
My favorite piece of the evening is “The Gay Garden Club,” which included such gems as, “I once saw a guy kill an orchid with a glance,” and “If Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter can accept him…” The premise is that the gay garden club has had applications for membership from straight men and lesbians, and delves into their responses.Rodriguez, Zack Kerr, Matt Warzel and Charles Auten debate the merits of exclusivity. What Grudzien quite cleverly has done is found a way to flip the script on the discussion of discrimination. Coupled with Vernon’s skillful direction, the men underplay stereotypes and find an opportunity to really explore, through humor, the subtext of the show. Auten and Warzel, in particular, are surprising and cast against type. Warzel, known for his completely over-the-top physical humor reins it in to find some beautiful moments of truth while still making the audience laugh.
Auten, a tall, commanding man, plays a vulnerable and highly sensitive person determined to take a stand for something he believes in. Though he is not above pouting to get his way. Egged on by Rodriguez as a distracted, aging queen on one side, and Kerr as the young upstart on the other, they explore a pretty remarkable range of human quandary.
Speaking of casting against type, “Under London,” the final piece of the evening, features one of the most remarkable performances I have seen Warzel give. Thus far, I have seen him in comedic roles, and to watch the truly dramatic journey he takes during the course of this short piece is incredible. Auten plays Ray, the owner of an underground bar during the blitz, and is ably assisted by Terri Batson as Mimi a bar maid and possible war widow. These two turn in great performances as Londoners trying to “solider on” at the home front in the face off great devastation. They both pull of understated and pretty realistic English accents.
Perhaps one of the most memorable moments of the evening occurred during “Buy, Sell, Hold.” Rodriguez plays an aging business executive trapped in an airport lounge with a young up-and-comer (Zack Kerr). Lauren Berg turns in a great performance as the observant, barely civil and unhelpful airline staff. Meanwhile Rodriguez does Kerr a good turn. Kerr asks him what sort of advice he has for a guy like him. Though Rodriguez sticks to the script, what is really happening is an experienced actor taking the time to show (not tell) a young kid starting out what craft really is. That’s a beautiful moment to watch on stage.
“Pole Vaulting Over Skyscrapers” is a fascinating evening of theatre that showcases not only good writing but wonderful acting and direction. Take advantage of this opportunity to support local, original scripts and go see this show. You will be glad you did.
Pole Vaulting Over Skyscrapers
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Fri. – Sat. Jan. 24th – 25th, 8 p.m., with Sun. matinee, 3 p.m.
Tickets: $15, $10 for students and seniors
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle Street