Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Opening Night by Norm Foster

Martin Thompson - Ilona Kulinska

By Joe Straw

I don’t know what life’s about and, half the time, I don’t know where I’m going, but this I do know:  stepping through the backstage door is a wonderful sensation – all that comes with it – and all those lights and shadows– it is inspiration coming from every direction.  – Narrator

Theatre 40 of Beverly Hills presents Opening Night by Norm Foster and directed by Bruce Gray.  There is a lot to like about this show and it is especially likeable in its sincerity.

The play opens, opening night, in the VIP room of the Piggery Theatre in North Hatley, Quebec.  Clayton Fry (David Hunt Stafford) is laying on his back, behind the couch, warming up opening up his nasal cavities, his entire mask, before he exits backstage.

“Neeeeeat, Nauuught, Nauughty” – Clayton Fry

Tom Delaney (Eric Keitel) a twenty-one year-old actor, and tonight a bartender, tells Michael Craig (Richard Hoyt Miller), an accomplished actor, that he too is an actor.  He doesn’t know when the day will come but he suspects that he and Michael will someday share the same stage.

Supremely flattered, Michael queries Tom to fetch him another drink.

Ruth Tisdale (Gail Johnston) is enamored of being backstage in the VIP lounge.  She feels the thrill and excitement of being one with celebrities. She is accompanied by her husband, Jack Tisdale (John Combs), a hardware salesman, who is unhappy about being at this silly play on the night of the 7th game of the World Series. 

Ruth strongly reminds him that it’s also their 25th wedding anniversary and she wants none of his complaining.  Ruth thinks acting is a noble profession and she wants this night to ignite the flames of their passion.

“With my back?” - Jack

Across the room Jack recognizes Handy Randy, Michael Craig, the guy in the commercials about the wrench in the box, doing the things that make people laugh or take notice.   Michael is flattered to be recognized, but quickly tires of this non-thespian speaking of varnish, and after drinking an abundant amount of alcohol, he leaves for more important things.

“Excuse me.  I’ve got to walk the schnauzer.” – Michael

Richard Hyde-Finch (Martin Thompson), the director, has found out that his actress Libby Husniak (Ilona Kulinska) has not signed in.  His partner, Cilla Fraser (Meranda Walden), the town’s socialite, comes in calmly worried about one thing, their relationship and his commitment. She’s got a little something extra up her “sleeve”.

Ruth takes the opportunity to introduce herself as being from the mayor’s office. Not to miss any golden opportunity, Richard mistakes her for the Vice Mayor and ingratiates himself to her.

“I’m in accounting, down the hall, two floors down.” – Ruth

Ruth, noted for her sincerity, explains that nobody wanted the tickets so they were given to her.

Caught dead in the silence of her comments, Ruth introduces Jack to Richard.  The first thing they want to know is if he is married (he’s not) and if he directs a lot (he doesn’t) and, so with a lot of free time on his hands, he might want to stop by the store and pick up a few cans of varnish as a hobby between jobs.

Richard takes his card and leaves.

Meanwhile Cilla speaks to Richard about having a child.  Her biological clock is ticking and she wants to have children.

“What if I were pregnant?” – Cilla

Cilla excuses herself, which leaves Michael and Richard who just happen to notice each other, in the way that actors and directors do.  And caught together in a room, they speak.  

“I’m up for the role in Iceman.  Disappointed that I didn’t get it.” – Michael

Richard, in full pleasant-speak, wants to know if the court case is behind him now.


Richard says that he is casting The Tempest in November but Prospero’s role is already filled.

Double ouch.

Best friends on the outside, gnawing bitter enemies on the in.

Libby finally shows up and Richard hustles her well-endowed self to get into costume to perform.

There is a marvelous set change Designed by Jeff G. Rack and the VIP room is wonderfully transformed to a small set with a country backdrop and actors churning butter.  The audience is comprised with everyone we’ve met in the first act, sitting in the audience, grinning while the show starts.  

And everyone is there to watch, filled with optimism, on opening night.  Slowly the lights come up on a voluptuous young maiden, churning butter, waiting for the arrival of her father.  And it is then that everything starts to go horribly wrong.   

I couldn’t help but stare at the patrons from time to time and see warm smiles throughout the night.  There was also a woman who had an infectious laugh and was having the best of times.

John Combs plays Jack Tisdale and did a fine job learning a few facts of life. Stuck in the back room of his hardware store, listening to the baseball fames on his transistor radio one would surmise he doesn’t get out much. Combs has a comedic commercial face and does quite well. He could take it up a notch with the bag of chips.

Gail Johnston played Ruth Tisdale and has a very nice show-stopping moment. Johnston is a veteran performer, which is evident throughout the night.  She made the most of her performance and was an absolute joy to watch.

Eric Keitel plays the young actor/bartender, Tom Delaney, running in and out with the drinks. I couldn’t help but believe there was more to this character, another layer or two, that wasn’t seen on this night. Still, Keitel did a very nice job.

Llona Kulinska played a robust Libby Husniak with enough comic flair to entice her counterparts.  But her relationship seemed platonic on all levels and it’s not something a character really wants when she is trying to make it to the top. Still, I enjoyed her performance.

Richard Hoyt Miller played Michael Craig, an actor with a wonderful voice, a to-die-for voice, a voice for the stage but possibly not film (cue: rim shot), and a voice that is the downfall of his life.  Not to mention the troubles he has gotten into.  Miller is a wonderful actor.  

David Hunt Stafford as Clayton Fry, complete with an English accent (Yipes! Where did that come from?), is a farmer out of his field.   Not someone you would want churning butter with your young daughter. As Clayton, the actor, he is very charming to his counterpart, sweeping her away with lines remembered from long ago. It is a wonderful performance.

Martin Thompson as Richard Hyde-Finch is self-important cad. He is a man who has shaken the dust off this tiny theatre town and shaken it to its core.  He is a master director in his own mind and this tiny town somewhere in North Hatley, Quebec, Canada. (North of Vermont)  Still, this is his night, a critical night, a night of life and death.  Also, I think the character should be pulled in various amorous directions. At least two.  And finding a few more character moments would only add to an already delightful performance.  

Meranda Walden as Cilla Fraser is resplendent and amusing displaying her emotional pleasures of having a love and director all in the same breath.  She is a character with an equable spirit even with temptation all around her mate.  She knows what she wants and what is necessary to get there.  It is a delightful understated performance.

I’m going to make a suggestion.  Include the entryway, the backstage door, in the opening moments of the show.  This is no greater feeling than the slow walk into the backstage door.  It will compliment and define the Piggery Theatre, especially the art on the wall, which is a pasquinade of the theatre itself. Using it briefly will highlight the beginning and open VIP room to its masterful glory.    

Bruce Gray directed a delightful show but one thing bothered me.  There was a noise coming from behind me.  It sounded like someone had on a transistor radio on or it was a hearing aid gone berserk. I believe it was ambient noise but at times this noise overpowered the dialogue. A woman behind me said:  “Who’s playing the radio?” That aside, I had a delightful time.

There’s no social message in Norm Foster’s play.  It’s about everyday people living ordinary lives.  Still, one should push the envelope now and again. If it’s a show about theatre, it’s always life and death.   Just ask any actor struggling to get a job, anywhere, here in this town. Maybe, it’s just my experience but actors, are constantly battling, to get the right moment. And they tear each others’ hair out to get that moment. The battle can’t be all fun and games.

Other crew members were as follows:

Don Solosan – Stage Manager
Jeff G. Rack – Set Design/EFX
Ric Zimmerman – Lighting Designer
Bill Froggatt – Sound Designer
Michéle Young – Costume Designer  - Very nice costumes!

Run and take someone who likes the theatrical experience of Opening Night. 

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