Review: 'Over the Tavern'
Bless me, Father, for I have laughed: BoarsHead opens season with irreverent family comedy
"God could learn a few things from Ed Sullivan," 12-year-old Rudy Pazinski tells his dad at the conclusion of "Over the Tavern," now playing at Lansing's BoarsHead Theatre.
Such pronouncements are totally logical to a child struggling to make sense of the world around him, of course. But Tom Dudzick's warm and very funny comedy about growing up Catholic takes place in the late 1950s, an era not known for original thoughts – especially when it concerned children and religion!
American Catholicism in the 1950s was a period of unquestioned authority: Children learned their religion by memorizing questions and answers printed within the pages of the Baltimore Catechism, parents stood behind whatever punishments were doled out by ruler-wielding nuns and whatever the pope declared was adhered to as if it came out of the mouth of Jesus himself.
It was also the time when television gained influence. New perceptions of the American family were idealized – didn't everyone want to live like "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Father Knows Best"?
But more importantly, it was the era of the Cold War – and people began questioning the world around them, setting the stage for the tumultuous 1960s!
It is in that setting that young Rudy finds trouble when he bucks the system and announces to Sister Clarissa that he does not want to be confirmed; the Church will simply have to defend itself without him! There are 1,300 different religions out there, he bravely tells her, and he's decided it's time to shop around for one with fewer rules and no catechism.
Such an attitude doesn't sit well with Sister, of course. So the ancient nun decides it's time to visit the Pazinski's home located above the family bar.
Where, as can imagine, all hell breaks loose!
Unbeknownst to Sister Clarissa, the Pazinski family is in the midst of a crisis. The four children are intimidated by – and feel unloved by – their gruff, hardworking father, and each is struggling with problems typical of teenagers both then and now. And Ellen, their mother, is trying to hold her beloved family together any way she can!
If the shock of Sister's visit isn't enough to throw the family into chaos, what tumbles out into the open – and into the ambulance – surely does the trick!
As Rudy learns the hard way, bargaining with Jesus has its pitfalls!
"Over the Tavern" is the type of show many directors avoid like the plague, as it goes against the old "show biz" adage, "Never work with children or animals." While the only animals in this production are stuffed, there ARE four children – and each is integral to the story. What's more, Director Jane Page gets splendid performances from each of them!
Lara Smith, who plays daughter Annie, has a spectacular meltdown in the second act that most parents of girls "blossoming into womanhood" will enjoy. Likewise, Spencer Smith is impressive as eldest brother Eddie, especially when he bravely voices the hidden fears of his siblings. Kierin Kerbawy has few words as youngest brother Georgie, but those he chooses to say pack quite a wallop.
However, it's Colin Mollory who carries much of the show, and his performance as Rudy is nearly flawless. (Pausing for laughter is a skill he'll quickly master – he gets plenty!) Already an award-winning actor at the age of 13, Mollory gives a fine performance from start to finish!
Also fine are parents Tim Jacobs and Dana Munshaw Brazil.
The evening's most talked about performance, however – based on eavesdropping both during intermission and after the show, of course – belongs to three-time Wilde Award nominee Carmen Decker. Hers is a wonderful, multi-dimensional performance that breathes humanity into her character's soul. It's another prime example of why Decker has long been a favorite of BoarsHead audiences!
"Over the Tavern" Presented Wednesday through Sunday at BoarsHead Theatre, 425 S. Grand Ave., Lansing, through Sept. 25. Tickets: $20 – $33. 517-484-7805. www.boarshead.org.
The Bottom Line: Even "publics" – those who attended public schools rather than Catholic ones – will find something to love about this well acted, intelligently written, family comedy!
Review: 'Mass Appeal'
'Appealing' comedy opens Detroit Ensemble season
The season-opening performance of "Mass Appeal" at the Detroit Ensemble Theatre this past Friday night had much in common with the play's premiere in 1981: Both were performed on what playwright Bill C. Davis called "a postage stamp of a stage," and theatergoers in the house were few and far between.
That was certainly the case at DET, a struggling theater company eager to find its niche in Metro Detroit's professional theater scene. The troupe, now in its second full season staging shows in a storefront in Roseville, is comprised of young actors and seasoned veterans looking to establish a quality venue in Detroit's eastern suburbs.
With a small stage and limited seating – and a budget to match, naturally – DET is searching for a concept that works within its means. And what seems to work best – at least so far – are small, character-driven shows that require few sets and costumes – and that benefit from the close proximity to the audience.
They might be on to something with "Mass Appeal."
At its core, "Mass Appeal" is a laugh-out-loud, two person comedy that addresses some very serious subjects. Should the Catholic Church ordain women as priests? Or homosexual men – or men with homosexual tendencies? And celibacy – is that really a healthy lifestyle?
The issues are never resolved, of course – although Davis is quite clear about which side of the debates he sits. Instead, the crux of the play is the relationship that forms between two men of opposite viewpoints: a long-established priest who would rather be loved than buck the system and a young seminarian who clearly sees life's hypocrisies and wants to challenge them.
Father Tim Farley is a much-beloved Irish pastor whose feel-good brand of Catholicism plays well with his flock; for his troubles he is well rewarded with fine wines and expensive cars. Mark Dolson is his opposite – and the young firebrand challenges the complacent priest's lifestyle.
The seminarian's days are numbered, however, when he gives a fiery sermon and admits to his superior that – in his earlier, wilder days – he's had sex with both women and men. Will Fr. Farley rise to the challenge and save the career of a young man who could one day become an extraordinary priest?
What makes or breaks "Mass Appeal" is the interpretation given by the director and the chemistry between its two actors. Here, DET succeeds.
Cast in the role of Fr. Farley is Craig S. Martin, DET's co-artistic director. The affable and talented actor brings both brightness and sadness to the role, but line stumbles throughout last Friday's performance occasionally disrupted the show's pacing – and stole focus from a few critical scenes.
Brian Robinette gives a strong performance as the seminarian. The handsome, young actor not only imbues Dolson with energy and conviction, it's a believable performance from start to finish.
The show especially kicks into high gear whenever both Martin and Robinette "are engaged in the moment." And I suspect that with a little more rehearsal, that'll happen throughout the show rather than in only a few select spots!
"Mass Appeal" Presented Friday through Sunday by the Detroit Ensemble Theatre, 25213A Gratiot, Roseville, through Sept. 25. Tickets: $15. 888-220-8471.
The Bottom Line: You don't need fancy sets and colorful costumes to tell an engaging story – "Mass Appeal" serves as a nice season opener for DET.