Wild ‘Rumors’ in Westfield

By John Lyle Belden

There’s a reason why Neil Simon’s classic farce, “Rumors,” is a community theatre staple. It’s an intricate yet easy to follow comedy that allows local actors used to one others’ rhythm to pull out all the stops and set an appreciative audience practically rolling in the aisles with laughter.

Main Street Productions in Westfield stepped up to the challenge, and under the direction of Jen Otterman, succeeded wildly. Otterman notes that the theme undergirding the wacky plot is friendship – especially the kind that freaks out at the thought of a BFF getting a soiled reputation. We get this sense immediately when dear friends Ken and Chris Gorman (Robert Webster Jr. and Laura Givens) arrive at the home of their best friend Charlie (who happens to be Deputy Mayor of New York) for his anniversary party to find him upstairs, injured, and his wife Myra missing. And did they hear a gunshot?

Before getting any answers, more friends arrive: Accountant Lenny Ganz and his wife Claire (Josh Elicker and Monya Wolf); then Ernie the analyst and Cookie the TV cooking-show host (Jason Vernier and Kelsey VanVoorst); and finally, Glenn and Cassie Cooper (Jan Hauer and Sara Castillo Dandurand), he’s running for State Senate and she’s running him ragged with her crystal obsession and constant suspicions of his infidelity.

Before it’s all done, there will be numerous well-meaning falsehoods, a literally deafening second gunshot, DIY meal and cocktails, and further damage to Lenny’s BMW. So, when Officers Welch and Pudney (Nathaniel Taff and Nicole Amsler) come around asking questions, what do these paranoid partygoers say?

Again, this is all very, very funny. Comic goddess VanVoorst is in her element, as well as Webster, a versatile talent who has become a familiar face on the Westfield stage. The rest of the cast stay right on the pace, delivering one zinger or sight-gag after another. Givens and Wolf have Lucy-and-Ethyl chemistry and timing. Elicker puts the “suffer” in longsuffering but keeps it all light. Vernier is a hoot as the expert on human behavior who barely has a clue. Hauer displays the desperation to come out of this with his dignity and campaign intact. Dandurand brings flaky fun without going over the top. Even Taff gets to shine, as the cop with little tolerance for foolishness finding himself in Fool Central.

Rumor has it you will have a great time at performances Thursday through Sunday, June 9-12, at the Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St. Get info and tickets at WestfieldPlayhouse.org.

Wacky ‘Idiots’ in Westfield

By John Lyle Belden

“Flaming Idiots” is not Shakespeare, but the Bard does get a shout-out. This farce by Tom Rooney, presented by Main Street Productions in Westfield through Sunday (April 10) is the kind of laugh-out-loud escapist fare that comes in handy in ever-troubled times. 

The cast features many kinds of fools: 

  • Phil (Ethan Romba) is really good at jumping into things and not thinking them through, while convinced he has a fool-proof plan. So he accepts a local mobster’s offer to take over a failing restaurant, though Phil knows next to nothing about the business (which is apparently more than enough, in his mind). 
  • Phil’s partner Carl (Austin Uebelhor) is the kind of general dunce who is randomly curious about everything and understands nothing. His one stroke of genius is creating the eatery’s signature cocktail, the Flaming Idiot (“One drink makes you silly,” he explains.) 
  • Local police Officer Task (Jeffrey Haber) has an IQ somewhere between that of his horse and his last donut (so, of course he’s studying to become Detective) but at least he’s friendly and helpful.
  • Eugene (Austin Hookfin) is a waiter and aspiring ACTOR! who is really invested in his method and eager for his chance to shine.
  • Ernesto Santiago (Chris Taylor), a busboy from the barrios of Norway(?), seems to have some sense about him, as well as a mysterious briefcase, though he does lose his cool when anyone mentions “laundry.”
  • Bernadette (Wendy Brown) is the most sensible of the bunch, and the best vegetarian chef in town, but also completely deaf from a recent accident. (Will this be exploited for comic misunderstandings? Note the word “farce” above.)
  • Jayne Fryman (Ashley Engstrom) seems to do everything for the hometown newspaper – advertising, food critic, crime beat – which, having been a small-paper writer myself, I find the most believable character. However, she is plagued with a “wardrobe malfunction” that is the cause of a lot of cheeky laughs.
  • The play’s plot includes the idea to fake a mob murder to give Phil’s Restaurant the buzz of noteriety; enter Louie (Eric Bowman), the past-his-prime hitman who needs a diagram to make sure he goes through the correct door.
  • Aside from Bernadette, the smartest character by far is a random Body that, when shaved, somehow resembles a famous stage producer. He gives a truly moving performance (in a wheeled office chair).

Actually, it takes a lot of smarts to make an “idiotic” performance funny, and this crew delivers a MENSA-level effort under the genius direction of Brian Nichols. And for an all-ages show, you end up seeing a lot of underwear!

It’s all in good fun, at the Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St. Get information and tickets at WestfieldPlayhouse.org.

Touching treatment of Steinbeck classic in Westfield

By Wendy Carson

There was a comedian who once said he doesn’t like “Star Wars” because growing up he saw the movie “Spaceballs” first and was disappointed by the lack of comedy. Growing up with numerous Looney Tunes cartoon shorts parodying various high-minded subjects, I feel the same way about “Of Mice and Men.” I liked the comedic versions I grew up watching. However, I have learned that with local theater offerings, a great production can change your opinion of a show — and that is the case here.

Main Street Productions in Westfield has on stage a remarkable version of the John Steinbeck novel. George Milton (Brian Coon) and Lennie Small (Joe Wagner) are two drifters in search of a small stake they can use to purchase a small house and farm in order to “live off the fat of the land.” This brings them to the barley farm that proves to be their salvation and undoing.

Once they arrive in the farm bunkhouse, they meet our somewhat usual assortment of characters: the gruff, no-nonsense Boss (A. Mikel Allan) and his hot-headed son Curley (Jake Hobbs), who recently married and seems to always be searching for his flirty wife (Audrey Duprey). For the actual working members of the crew, we have Slim (Robert Webster Jr.), the mule driver and de facto supervisor; Candy (Chris Otterman) a crippled, aging farmhand with a dog (Meeko) about as broken as he is; Crooks (Austin Hookfin), the black stable-hand who gets his name from his injured back (NOTE: As the script was written in 1937 and takes place during the Great Depression, certain racist terms are used, in context); as well as the other farm hands Carlson (Logan Browning) and Whit (Nathaniel Taff).

Coon does a great job of balancing George’s ambitious dream of the future with his concerns for Lennie’s actions erasing all hope of it. While Wagner seemed to take a little bit to fully get into character, once he settled in, his Lennie emulates all of the sweet naivete and simplicity of purpose that the character struggles with in his desire to just hold and enjoy the feel of something soft in his hands.

Otterman’s performance is perhaps my favorite. He manages to keep Candy upbeat while embracing the character’s desolate vision of his pathetically painful demise on the farm. He takes on the hopefulness of joining George and Lennie on their farm, trusting them to “take him out back and shoot him” when he is no longer viable. He even manages to upstage Meeko, whose debut turn as Candy’s Dog makes him a rising star to watch for in future roles.

Chris Otterman aptly brings out Curley’s obsessively neurotic desires to keep his wife happy, yet under control, at any cost. As Curley’s wife, Duprey delicately treads the line between the lonely woman who just wants companionship and the “tart” out to make trouble among the menfolk for her own pleasure. Webster does an admirable job of subtly showing Slim as a man just wanting to keep peace throughout the workforce without encouraging any of them to fall for the “honey trap.”

Hookfin gives us a window to the struggles people in his skin had in that era, even in the otherwise egalitarian world of the farm worker or ranch hand.

James H. Williams directs, and Ian Marshall-Fisher provides an excellent bunkhouse/barn design for the stage. Coon also created the lighting design.

While the show is a heady mixture of the stark realities of life, it does manage to portray the human struggle for hope and happiness throughout. Whether you liked the novel or not, you should certainly give the play a viewing. It will help open dialogues regarding its message and why it remains a classic of literature that should continue to be taught in our schools.

One weekend of “Of Mice and Men” remains, though Sunday, Feb. 20, at the relatively new Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield. Info and tickets at www.westfieldplayhouse.org.

Shakespeare vs. six-shooters in Westfield

By John Lyle Belden

Upon seeing that Main Street Productions in Westfield has produced “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” one might think that someone dusted off an old script — after all, the John Wayne/Jimmy Stewart movie, and the popular song, came out in 1962. But this play was written in 2014 — by Jethro Compton, based more on the original Dorothy M. Johnson story than the film. And this Western, set toward the end of the 19th century, has a lot to say to us in the 21st.

Rance Foster (Matt Hartzburg), a scholar seeking his fortune out West, is beaten and left for dead by Valance (Adam Davis) and his gang. Rescued by local cowboy Bert Barricune (R.C. Thorne), Foster is brought to a saloon owned and run by Miss Hallie Jackson (Sabrina Duprey) in the tiny town of Twotrees. The local Marshal (Kevin Shadle) isn’t much help as he feels the small bounty on Valance’s head isn’t near worth facing his gun. 

As Foster recovers, he discovers that “Reverend” Jim (Xavier Jones), the black boy who grew up with Hallie, has perfect memory — having earned his nickname by memorizing the Bible just from hearing it, despite being illiterate. Foster decides to teach Jim — and Hallie, and anyone who’s interested — to read, with the help of books he carries with him, including a volume of Shakespeare sonnets.

Hints of civilization don’t set well with Liberty Valance, who wants to keep the territory as lawless as possible for as long as possible, while enriching himself and his gang. So, he comes to visit Twotrees, setting in motion the events that lead to his final showdown.

The play is directed by Veronique Duprey, Sabrina’s mother. She said that when she found the script a couple of years ago and looked for an opportunity to stage it, she had not thought of her daughter to take the role of Hallie. But now, the casting seems perfect. An experienced young actress, Sabrina convincingly holds her own with the men — much like her character.

Other roles are also well-cast. Hartzburg wins us over as the idealistic tenderfoot; Thorne projects strength even standing still; Davis is perfectly chilling; Jones is outstanding in a surprisingly complex character; and Shadle takes what could be a comic role and stays true to the drama, playing the Marshal on the fine line of pragmatism and cowardice. Supporting roles are played by Cody Holloway, Alex Dantin, Robert Fimreite, Rich Steinberg and Rob Stokes.

Tom Smith lends his strong voice and presence as the Narrator, sort of a living embodiment of the Spirit of the West.

More than the events surrounding a legendary shootout, this is a story of love and loyalty, finding the strength to make one’s self and world better, and bravery beyond the ability to hold a gun steady.

And drinking a lot of fake whiskey (it is set in a saloon, after all).

Note the play includes coarse language and the use of loud blanks in the pistols (the venue is kind of small). Main Street Productions will break ground on a new playhouse in downtown Westfield later this month, but for now performances are still in the old former church building at 1836 W. State Road 32, through Oct. 13. Call 317-402-3341 or visit westfieldplayhouse.org.