By Jenn McKee
Playing on the idea that many theatergoers have a secret longing to be on stage themselves, Mixed Company Troupe offers dinner theater with a twist: In each of the show’s three acts – which are performed between salad, dinner, and dessert courses – a volunteer from the audience comes up on stage to play a role, voicing lines of dialogue fed to them via an earpiece.
“The Icewoman Calls,” playfully written by director (and MCT founder) Sasha d’Or, chronicles the adventures of a wily woman named Aileen, who hopes her best friend will help extract her from a sticky situation in Act 1 (“Dearly Defrosted”), then ventures in the world of spies in Acts 2 (“Saddling Her First Spy”) and 3 (“Poison on the Rocks”).
If it sounds like there’s a clear division between the first act and the rest of the show, well, there is; And because the first act – in terms of the writing and the integration of the audience member into the scene – is by far the tightest, most satisfying segment, I wondered if the program would be better served by way of three stand-alone short plays.
The volunteer audience member’s role in the second act consists of just as much pantomimed “inner monologue,” by way of a recording, as it does spoken lines, and this seems to cheat the company’s central concept a bit. In contrast, the first act, by way of having a tight, simple narrative arc of its own, seemed a better fit for the audience volunteer set-up; And the broader, more intricate storyline of the second and third acts just didn’t have the same impact as the first.
The tone of the show is one of comic suspense – plot twists aplenty, delivered with a wink – and that’s generally a good fit for dinner theater. The logistics of the volunteer having to listen to the line he/she will say before the piece can proceed occasionally undercuts d’Or’s comedy, but the up-side is the sense of fun that comes with watching someone you love, or even someone who you just met across the table during the salad course, taking a risk and appearing on-stage.
Indeed, the sense of enthusiasm among friends and family of those on stage was palpable. (For the record, while nothing that graphic actually happens on stage, Aileen is a woman who uses sexuality as part of her arsenal, so attendees would be best served leaving young kiddos at home.) Producer Gwynne Jennings and her team necessarily – given that the venue is not a theater – work to scale things down to the basics: a sign/picture hanging in front of a draped black backdrop; a table; and a couple of chairs make up the bulk of the set for most scenes. And given the nature of the show, it’s generally enough.
Yet the downside is that blackouts are more like awkward dim-outs, with the actors freezing after a certain line, the lights dimming, and then the actors leaving and otherwise moving around, sometimes changing costumes on stage. Yes, it’s hard to imagine a better, more effective way of dealing with this production challenge, but even so, the transitions inevitably feel pretty clunky.
Plus, the show’s acting quality varies broadly; but there’s a reason Erika Hoveland is the show’s anchor, because she’s all in, and watching her react and reveal things throughout “Icewoman” keeps you engaged, even when you’re feeling a little lost.
In the end, MCT’s central conceit is a clever one – an interesting and fun departure from the typical theatergoing experience – but as “Icewoman”‘s tighter, superior first act demonstrates, it works with certain kinds of storytelling better than others.
‘The Icewoman Calls’
Based in Lakeland, Mixed Company Troupe tours its seven shows to venues and organizations for fundraisers, benefits, parties, special events and other public or private performances. For complete information or to arrange a booking, call 734-277-6847 or log on to http://www.mixedcompanytroupe.com