Saturday, May 15, 2010

Second star to the right

There are lots of bloggers out there. There are a few bloggers who dedicate themselves to evaluating community theater in our area. I tend to disagree with either their assessments (because they are self-important blowhards) or their ethics (because they accept free tickets).

So, just this once, I'm going to use this space to publish a review. While I'm not a national champion actor (whatever that is) nor currently theatrically active in any capacity other than audience member, I believe my opinions are valid.

Last night, I saw K-Pax at the Geneva Underground Playhouse (GUP). I went with a group of friends who gathered at Bistro Thai two blocks East of the theater beforehand. (I won't review the restaurant here, but trust me ... try the yellow curry.)

The GUP is quickly becoming one of my favorite venues to see a show. It's small, so you experience performances in a way few theaters allow. And with a show like K-Pax, it's perfect.

K-Pax tells the story of Prot (Scott Surowieki), an alien from the planet K-Pax. A kinder, gentler planet, if you will. Prot finds himself admitted to Ward Two of a mental institution, and here we meet not only his psychiatrist, Dr. Gene Brewer (Pat Able) but the other patients in the ward as well.

And I just told a lie. I said K-Pax is the story of Prot, but I really don't believe that. K-Pax is about what you, the audience member, decide it's about. You get to decide. Is it about mental illness? The fragility of the human condition? Going beyond ourselves? All I can say is ... yes.

Surowieki relishes this role. There are moments when he seems to devour it ... literally. His approach to his character is full-on acceptance of who Prot thinks he is. Able, as Dr. Brewer, has the unique ability to blend in and let the character of Prot be the star of the scene. This, in my opinion, is the mark of a truly great actor - someone who is willing to fade and let his fellow cast member shine. Particularly difficult when only the two men are on the stage, yet Able does it with a grace not often seen ... at least not by me. His portrayal of Brewer (a character, incidentally, named after the playwright) provides the audience with an understanding of the comfort level his patients have with him. If I didn't know he were an actor, I'd hire him to listen to my problems. (Dr., I have this rage thing against certain bloggers ... )

The first resident of Ward Two isn't a patient, but nurse Betty McAllister (Angelicque Cate). Cate brought to her character facets of many different medical professionals I've met throughout life - the nurse who comforted me and the doctor who sympathized with me over loss, to name a few. Cate's portrayal made me believe she cares about her patients. And when there was a moment of levity, Cate seamlessly helped us find the laugh.

The other residents of the ward include Chuck (Steve Lord); Ernie (Russ Devereaux); Bess (Angela Bend); and Howie (Peter Lemongelli). We watch their stories unfold as Prot gets to know them, and there are some stellar performances here. Lord shows his comedy chops and his tender side as we learn of Chuck's losses and yearnings for more. Devereaux introduces you to Ernie in a way that breaks your heart and then puts it back together again as he faces his fear and moves past it. Way past it. Bend beautifully embodies the impact violence has had on Bess, and soon you find yourself rooting for her the same way Prot seems to be.

And then there's Howie. Lemongelli moved me to applause and to tears almost simultaneously with his portrayal of this damaged soul. Howie is a jewel just preparing to shine.

Actually, that description works for every patient of Ward Two. And it's Prot who points them toward their next steps, who ties the story together and who shows the impact one person can have on the lives of others.

The character of reporter Giselle Griffen (Kathy Richardson) is introduced in Act I, and I'm still not sure why. She doesn't move the story forward a great deal, and she doesn't help us understand the other characters. But Richardson has taken her character and created someone who, while possibly a candidate for Ward Two herself, is searching for her story as she writes it. There's a little bit of all of us in Giselle.

This is a true ensemble show, and the cast is a true ensemble. While Lemongelli gives a standout performance, he doesn't overshadow his castmates. What we have here is a collection of actors who clearly care more about their story - and each other - than they do about personally stealing any moment of any scene. I attribute this to great casting, great directing and quite simply great people. I'd like to have coffee with each and every actor in K-Pax.

Was there anything I didn't like? To be honest, scene changes dragged a bit. There aren't great transformations to be made on the set, and the show would flow more effortlessly if these could be tightened up. And while it was a tiny bit obvious that some dialogue was bungled early on during the May 14 performance, I have no doubt that the actors will correct this before their next performance; those errors generally happen only once. And while I'm on the subject, it did not go unnoticed that the actors steered the story right back on track, while including all the important information and remaining flawlessly in character the entire time.

So take my advice. See K-Pax. Let yourself be moved.

The fine print: I am not an unbiased critic. Several members of the cast are friends of mine. I've known the director since we were both young (and quite adorable, I might add). But I am also a very honest, very critical audience member. If I had the money, I'd pay for your ticket.

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