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Everyone who has spent any time doing theater remembers productions or certainly parts of them when nothing went right. Indelibly etched into my memory as the perennial prop mistress during my grad school years is the excruciating moment when I scooted onstage barefoot to rearrange the set between scenes and discovered that the curtain was up and the entire audience was watching me.
Doing summer stock intensifies these experiences by throwing a group of often very different people into a heightened, insular world. As playwright/director Charles Morey says in his production notes for "Laughing Stock," which just opened at Pioneer Theatre Company, it is "the place where there [is] never enough of anything: staff, money and sometimes simply enough talent or skill."
Morey's affectionate and often-hilarious farce celebrates the ups and downs of such a mismatched family as they struggle to tell "stories in the dark on a summer night" as enthusiastic, unflappable artistic director Gordon (Jack Koenig) puts itin a 200-year-old barn with no air-conditioning and folding chairs in "the mosquito capital of New England."
As Morey notes, "Laughing Stock" is a "true ensemble piece. The comedy [grows] out of the dynamic of the group trying to accomplish a goal against all odds." Joining Gordon in this enterprise from hell is an eclectic group of eccentrics. Self-important, avant-garde director Susannah (Kymberly Mellen) decides that "Charley's Aunt" is really about "the anguish of gender, … the rage of gender crisis." One of the play's funniest scenes has the cast "exploring" the text by improvising that they are animals at an African water hole at dusk.
Business manager Craig (Craig Bockhorn) is obsessed with the alarming number of pencils the actors are using; technical director Henry (Paul Kiernan) tries to cope with creating sets, lighting and special effects for three shows on no budget; and sarcastic, but soft-hearted, stage manager Sarah (Cheryl Gaysunas) is a reality check when things snowball out of control.
Then there is the acting company: Ditsy, sexy ingenue Mary (Lesley Shires) is not terribly bright; method actor Tyler (David Christopher Wells) wants to "morph" into Dracula and wonders, "What does it really mean to be undead?"; critical Vernon (Jeff Steitzer) has a caustic comment about everything; absent-minded veteran Richfield (Anderson Matthews) can't keep the names of the characters in Gordon's "Dracula" adaptation, "Dracule, Prince of the Undead," straight and forgets his props; hard-working, talented Jack (Cary Donaldson) plans to desert theater for law school; motherly Daisy (Joyce Cohen) knits backstage and wishes everyone "kisses on your opening"; and neophyte actor/prop master Braun (Andy Rindlisbach) forgets which play he is in and misplaces Yorick's skull for "Hamlet."
Morey's gift for directing farce shines in the second act when absolutely everything goes wrong on the opening night of "Dracule." Donaldson, Steitzer, Matthews, Wells and Shires are especially funny in this section. Peter Harrison's warm, wooden barn set with its view of the woods combines with Karl Haas' mellow, nostalgic lighting to capture the essence of New England summer. K.L. Alberts' costumes reflect their wearers' widely diverse personalities and the limited resources of a stock company.
Even if you've never been on a stage, we've all had embarrassing moments, and "Laughing Stock" proves that it's always funnier when they happen to someone else.
Review: 'Laughing Stock'
R Charles Morey's lightning-fast direction and the performances of a well-matched ensemble turn PTC's production of "Laughing Stock" into an entertaining tribute to theater and the people who lovingly labor to create it.
When • Reviewed on March 23; Mondays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through April 7, with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. University St., Salt Lake City
Tickets • $25 to $44 with discounts for students and groups. Call 581-6961 or visit http://www.pioneertheatre.org for tickets and information.
Running time • Two hours and 45 minutes (including an intermission)