By Jenn McKee
ANN ARBOR – When an economically depressed town is at its breaking point, and residents are scrambling for solutions, you wouldn't expect the fiscal-strategy-of-choice to involve opening a theater. But in the quirky, offbeat world of James Hindman's "Popcorn Falls," now being staged at Theatre Nova, that's the scenario. In order to access funds earmarked for the arts, the Kernels – which is what Popcorn Falls' residents call themselves – must come together and put on a show.
Formerly a tourist destination, the beleaguered town has come on hard times since a dam diverted the (former) falls' water elsewhere. A new mayor, Mr. Trundle (Jeff Priskorn), works with his colleague and friend, Joe (Jonathan Jones), to create a play from scratch, cast it and present it, all within a few days' time.
Priskorn and Jones not only play the characters mentioned above, but also several eccentric townspeople, plus a cigar-chomping power broker from a neighboring town who's calling the shots. Because Mayor Trundle is the play's central character, Priskorn only occasionally ventures into other personas, while Jones must be a kind of turbo-chameleon, quickly shifting gears in nearly every scene by changing his voice and posture (and sometimes his cap), to the point of playing both sides of a single conversation.
Though both actors serve Hindman's material well – well-guided by director Daniel C. Walker – Jones' is the more wow-worthy performance, simply by virtue of the focused finesse necessary to juggle his many roles.
And that's what a play like "Popcorn Falls" boils down to: the magic of watching two actors stretch themselves into multiple roles before your eyes. A lot of regional theater companies have produced these duo-plays-a-multitude comedies in recent years, because it costs less to stage a play with two actors instead of six, and it features a neat theatrical stunt at its core. And "Popcorn Falls" has its moments of humor and charm; but in the realm of plays of this type, it never particularly rises above being a pleasant-but-unmemorable diversion.
Several characters seem overly familiar as "types," and some of the play's logistic challenges are resolved in a clunky, unsatisfying way. (In one scene, Jones plays a barmaid, switches to another character, and then Priskorn briefly exits and returns as that same barmaid character.)
But Walker's direction makes some awkward transitions less so, even playing them for laughs; and to his (and the actors') credit, clarity is never an issue. In addition, Walker designed the play's lighting, which helps tell the story by guiding the audience through the play's shifts; and the bare bones set, which mostly consists of two doors for the actors to enter and exit from while changing roles, and a small blackboard, hung on a pole, onto which the actors write the location for each scene.
We're now in a moment of great anxiety at the national level, of course; and art of all kinds has the amazing power to simultaneously distract us and re-focus us in unexpected ways. So is "Popcorn Falls" flawless? No. But does it provide a few chuckles while telling the heartening story of small town folk banding together to create art? Yes. So if a light night of theater is what your soul craves, consider "Popcorn Falls" to be like the food in its title: a decent snack, if not necessarily a hearty meal.
This review originally appeared at www.encoremichigan.org, the online site covering professional theater in Michigan.