Saturday, November 12, 2016

Vonnegut USA by Kurt Vonnegut adapted by Scott Rognlien

L - R Paul Plunkett and Eric Normington

By Joe Straw

Sometimes I have a reason for going to theatre.  Maybe it’s the author, the actors, the convenient time and place, or possibly an overaggressive press rep.  Whatever the case, I go. And just know that I go, willingly, without bonds, shackles, or ropes to pull me. 

For this journey we go back to a simpler time and a narrower place, for a ride down a quiet northeastern country road.  – Narrator

As I entered the theatre there was a gentleman sitting in front of me with a box of huge white Life Savers on the seat next to him.  It’s been a while since I’ve seen Life Savers that big, that white in an open cup for someone’s enjoyment, and perhaps later a note for open discussion.

And, as I turned my attention to the projection on the upstage wall, I mentioned to my partner that the Vonnegut USA projection was “very white”, with white characters, for a whiter, simpler time. I questioned her if this was what one of the candidates was saying when he was referring to “Making American Great Again.”

The Life Saver guy cringed, every so slightly, still it was an observable cringe - like a turtle’s head going back into the shell.

Too late, the show was starting, but at intermission, the gentleman moved to another location.

The Next Arena presents the world premiere of Vonnegut USA based on five short stories by Kurt Vonnegut, produced, adapted, and directed by Scott Rognlien and produced by JR Reed, Maia Peters, and Scott Rognlien through November 20, 2016 at the Atwater Theater complex.

One is at a complete loss as to what to write about this production because there are too many wonderful moments to absorb.  The characters were engaging, the stories had a down home feel, and the writings of the short stories are the joyous bubbling and the jocular expressions of Kurt Vonnegut.    

You would do yourself a great service to run and see this new work of art. It is here for a limited time only so run, run, run! And, if you are a Vonnegut fan, run even faster.

Scott Rognlien, the director has put together five Kurt Vonnegut post war short stories and created a play that is this short of seamless, is very inventive, and wonderful in execution.  It is also very imaginative in ways that you wish all theatre could be. The remarkable cast goes beyond expectation in performance and the stories will give you an emotional lift one way or another.  

Rognlien adapts Poor Little Rich Town and Lover’s Anonymous (from Bagombo Snuff Box), Bomar and Hundred-Dollar Kisses (from While Mortals Sleep) and Shout About it From the Housetops (from Look at the Birdie) and in this productions it appears it all takes place in one small rural town, whether this is intentional or not in post war America.  

American Forge and Foundry rises from the ground of nothingness in Spruce Falls to become something a manufacturing conglomerate with hundreds of workers or so says Kennard Pelk (Eric Normington), the security guard, who gives us an overview of the characters including Newell Cady (Jason Frost) a man who knows how to save dollars by intuition or simply by common sense.

“Cady could stroll through a plant that had been losing money for a generation, glance at the books, yawn and tell the manager how he could save half a million a year in materials, reduce his staff by a third, triple his output, and sell the stuff he’d been throwing out as waste for more than the cost of installing air-conditioning and continuous music throughout the plant.” – Kennard Pelk

Just the man we need! 

Anyway,  Cady had his mitts on everything including the right way to sort mail with the rubbery thing that you stick on the thumb.  Holding back her temperament Mrs. Dickie (Carryl Lynn) scowls at anyone who thinks better than her.  

“I’d like to see anybody teach me anything about this business.  I been postmistress for twenty-five years now, ever since my husband passed on.” – Mrs. Dickie

The townsfolk do not appreciate Newell Cady’s frugalness and his way of not moving the town forward.  


“It had been made clear to both of them that they didn’t have the priceless stuff of which executives were made.”

L - R Rob Chester Smith, Carryl Lynn, and Matt Taylor

Such are the character description of Lou Sterling (Rob Chester Smith) and Bud Carmody (Matt Taylor). They are two blow hard cut ups that try to get a slightly ditzy Mrs. Dickie (Carryl Lynn) into a lot of trouble.  She has been an employee for 39 years.  But now she is newly working in the department of Stockholders Records. 

Sterling and Carmody are practical jokers that want nothing better to pry the dits out of Mrs. Dickie’s cheeky brain.  It is no surprise that Sterling and Carmody, for lack of mental capacity, have trouble tracking their tales about the fictitious Bomar Fassenden III (Robert Beddall).  But despite Mrs.Dickie’s awkward mental demeanor she is the smartest one of the three sharing the office, and she is on to them.

Poor Little Rich Town (cont’d)

There is a lot of trickery going on in this town, Spruce Falls.

Spruce Falls was known for its mineral baths.  Developers envisioned the area as a goldmine.  The well to do built lavish homes near there.  Visitors would use the falls until people suddenly came down with terrible rashes.  A Manhattan dermatologist, in his infinite wisdom, decided to call the rash Spruce Falls disease and subsequently the property values plummeted.  

This did not sit too well with the local town folks who watched banks foreclose on lavish homes.  So, the local political groups, eager to have people move into the area, were offering to waive a 3-year living requirement to join community organizations, and on this night it was the fire department.  This didn’t set too well with Harvard educated Upton Beaton (Paul Michael Nieman), who’s ornamental educated self lost a political advantage.

It wasn’t until later that Stanley Atkins (Darren Mangler), the Fire Chief, reviewing the rules, ruled that Newell Cady did not meet the qualifications. 

Hundred-Dollar Kisses

Henry George Lovell, Jr. (Paul Plunkett) has got himself into a mess of trouble by knocking Verne Petrie (Keith Blaney) out cold with the talking end part of the phone. And now he’s talking to Detective Kennard Pelk (Eric Normington).

The frowzy Verne Petrie is slightly misguided viewing his Male Valor girlie magazines in the office with naked centerfolds for all to see.  Bright red in the glow of his viewing, Petrie salivates slightly with each turn of the page.  He shows his workmates everything in the magazines, including his office companion Henry George Lovell, Jr.

“Verne would open the magazine to the picture of the girl, and he’d say, approximately, “Boy, I’d pay a hundred dollars to kiss a doll baby like that.  Wouldn’t you?”

Henry, the not-so-good Unitarian, walked in on Verne. Verne begged him to pick up line three and join in the fun. Others were in on it too, including the janitor, Harry Barker (Robert Beddall) who had an urgent physical need to speak with the pin-up doll Patty Lee Minot (Marjorie LeWitt), who at the time of the magazine shoot is wearing a cellophane bathrobe.  

Lovers Anonymous

“I offer another title for our organization, a title in all ways inferior to yours except that it’s about ten thousand times easier to say.  Gentlemen, friends, brothers, I propose we call ourselves “Lovers Anonymous.”

Everyone thinks of her, why she left, and why she came back married to that guy.

“Sheila Hinckley is now a spare whitewall tire on the Thunder-bird of my dreams.” – Will Battola

Yes, that’s what they thought of Sheila Hinckley.  Older now, this group of men, Lover Anonymous still have thoughts about her, despite the fact they are all married, as they occasionally lament in a local get together – the drugstore.  

One day a red book from the lending library peeked their curiosity.  

“Woman, the Wasted Sex, or, the Swindle of Housewifery.”

Dave Mansield (JR Reed), a storm window salesman, took notice of the book and Reva Deal (Carryl Lynn) wanted to know if she could help him. Mansield read the title and flipped it back on to her desk.

“You certainly can.  You can throw this piece of filth down the nearest sewer.” – Dave Mansfield

There is a lot more here than I can give justice but suffice to say that Vonnegut USA is wonderfully produced by JR Reed, Maia Peters, and Scott Rognlien down to the smallest detail, the books, the magazines, a working well on stage, and the films produced and projected on the backstage wall.  All of it is a wonderful delight.

Robert Beddall does incredible work as Harry Barker, the long lost husband and father.  Beddall’s work is restrained, and if the work has a truly strong objective, I didn’t clearly see it. Certainly adding a little more cause would add to an already very fine performance. Beddall is also fascinating as Lawrence Morgan, a husband trying to find his way through the mishmash of married life.

Keith Blaney

“It was my understanding that Herb’s moving into the ell was a great tragedy of recent times.” – Dave Mansfield

Keith Blaney shows us a hard side as Verne Petrie with his licentious doctrine and a softer side as Herb White living his hell in the ell. This is a great showcase for Blaney and a performance that deserves to be seen.

Jason Frost does well as Newell Cady, cool, calm, and on point.  He manages everything well but has little to show regarding his conflict, the one thing that keeps him from achieving his objective. There may be more to add in character in the way he demands compliance from everyone.  (Obey me!) Still Frost has a very good look and does well on stage.

Marjorie LeWitt

Marjorie LeWitt shines as Patty Lee Minot, a woman who has left her past behind for good. Other characters she plays is Mary Mansfield and Elsie Strang Morgan a woman who desperately want to save her marriage and will do anything to reach her goal. LeWitt presents a strong character, and she is statuesque and stunning.

The things I most appreciate about this production are the multiple roles actors play.  Just getting down to task and making great character choices.  One actor, Carryl Lynn, fills her roles with grand dedication as Miss Daily, Mrs. Dickie, and Maid, and Reval Deal.  

Darren Mangler is Stanley Atkins and has a great look, a look that would work well in television and films.  Accompanying that look is a solid craft. Mangler accomplishes a lot in the time he is on stage.

Paul Michael Nieman has a broad booming voice and is very articulate on stage as Upton Beaton.  The character Beaton wins and loses in Poor Little Rich Town and we need to see more from those choices. The voice is very accomplished as he narrates portions of the show.

Eric Normington plays the security guard Kennard Pelk and is very likeable. Pelk is the congenial rogue that roams the unfettered halls of a lonely nightshift, occasionally coming upon some lost soul that needs direction. A chore he happily obliges. Normington’s craft is excellent and his facial expressions are priceless.  

Mai Peter is Sheila Hinkley White married to a man that has just changed his disposition moving into the “ell”, an extension to the house. Sheila Hinkley was the reason the other men created Lovers Anonymous, but this beauty has to overcome a lonely existence and seek higher ground. Peter is wonderful in observation, subtle, and has a beautiful core that is also mysterious. It was very nice work.

“I knocked Verne Petrie colder than a mackerel, because it came to me all in a flash that Verne Petrie was what was wrong with the world.” – Henry George Lovell, Jr.

Paul Plunkett plays Henry George Lovell, Jr. and is grill by a detective about what actually happened. Lovell is an observer noticing the players, their faults, and the way they move about their lives.  The character he assaults needs a lesson and it must be ingrained in his head, if that’s the only way it happens.   Lovell has had enough. Plunkett recreate the scene but maybe there’s more to add in how he feels about the janitors story, the relationship between the two, the things that draws him in and that pushes him over the edge.  That aside, there is a lot to like about Plunkett’s very funny performance, very nerdish, and very Unitarian.

I see JR Reed’s face and the one thing I can think of is Monty Python.  Reed plays Dave Mansfield a storm window salesman, who by appearance sells from your local television set at all hours of the night, peeking through the windows only for the only purpose of selling you windows, or spying on you. Reed is wonderfully funny in this production.  

Rob Chester Smith has a remarkable presence on stage and does very well as Lu Sterling and Ed Newcomb.

“You give a woman a book like this and you’re gonna have a restless woman on your hands.” Al Tedler

Matt Taylor plays Bud Carmody and Al Tedler and has a grand time playing both. Taylor has a good look, brings and everyman look to this production, and is comfortable on stage.

Also, included in the live presentation, are the actors in the film cast that adds a tremendous amount to the production. They are as follows:

Blaire Chandler – Gloria Hilton
Lori Anne Edwards – Women’s College President
Jacques Freydont – FFF Chairman of the Board
James Mathis III – Know-How Voice Over
Mark McCracken – Gloria’s Husband, Vacuum Voice Over
Zoe, Beau and Tyo Normington – Gloria’s Children
Scott Rognlien – FFF Promo Voice Over

Cavaet, I’m putting on my SAG EEOC hat here, there is not a lot of diversity in the cast.  Even the maid is white.

Character study is highlighted in this production with most of the actors hitting the mark.  Still, there’s room to add to the presentation. Reading the short stories, one can imagine the conflict, internal or otherwise, but on the presentation one would like to see the conflict played out in all of it’s glory on stage; for example the moment when the town turns on Newell Cady, the exact instant when Henry George Lovell, Jr. decides to pick up the phone, and the internal reasons for Herb White moving into the ell.

This takes nothing away from Scott Rognlien’s remarkable adaptation.  It opens a world of theatrical opportunities including a musical.  Also, Rognlien’s direction is wonderful with hardly a wasted moment on stage.  The production is well thought out and the execution is near perfection.

This show is the reason I go to theatre. The 99 seat venue is a showcase for working talent who are perfecting their craft, and giving it their all.

And then there’s the other level of what makes the creative team run, the crew.  The people you don’t see on stage but have contributed mightily.  They are as follows:

Kate Leahy – Projection and Lighting Designer
Brittany Blouch – Set Designer
Kimberly Freed – Costume Designer
Becky Hefferman – Stage Manager
Justin Ryan Brown – Technical Director
Ben Durham, Brendan Haley, Kurtis Bedford – Set Builders
Scott Rognlien – Film Director
Darrett Sanders – Director of Photography
Sara Glaser, Lena Alkhatib, and Veronica Zebrocki – Film Audio
Craig Kuchne, Marjorie LeWitt, Scott Rognlien – Film Editors/Post Production
Nora Feldman – Publicist
Joe McCarthy, II, Owen Hammer, Dave Portal – Graphic Designers

Run! Run! Run! And take someone who loves Vonnegut, by gosh.  

Reservation:  323-805-9355

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