Review thus far shows eclecticism on stage

A Door County arts organization’s weekly Key column at this time of year is often a “season wrap-up” which is written as they put all of the summer equipment into storage for hibernation. Actors and musicians leave town; sets, lighting equipment, and seating units are dismantled; a calm takes over and the “quiet season” begins, bringing with it a slower tempo not experienced since June.

Thus it is for pretty much all of the Door’s performing arts groups. Except us.

Third Avenue Playhouse’s season begins in February and doesn’t end until December. As your representative of the county’s only year-round professional theater, I can’t in good faith pen a season wrap-up. However, since our Key to the Door Weekly column is about to expire, I can do a sort of “the season so far” semi-wrap-up.

TAP began offering a respite from winter woes this past February with a two-weekend Play Reading Festival. Featuring nine plays in all, many patrons took in multiple readings while others attended only one or two. It was so well-liked that we plan to make it an annual event. We’ve tried doing full productions in February, but it seems our audiences are more interested in seeing staged readings at that time of year. So, readings it is.

 

To describe the productions that followed as “eclectic” would be accurate, but something of an understatement. It’s been more like a roller coaster ride.

First up was Sam Shepard’s “True West” featuring unforgettable performances by Doug Mancheski and Jonathan Wainwright (along with memorable contributions by Mark Moede and Laurel Brooks). A gritty and gripping evening in our intimate Studio Theatre space.

We followed that modern classic with a world premiere written and performed by yours truly. In “Velvet Gentleman” I played the role of French composer Erik Satie (and also played some of his compositions on the piano). The set included a large screen onto which 350 images were projected, most of them intricately timed to match the music I was playing. (Kudos to production manager Logan Thomas for keeping up with me.) 

I was often asked two interrelated questions during the run: How long did it take me to write the show? And was I fulfilling a longtime dream to play Erik Satie?

Well, to answer the first question will hint at the answer to the second. I came up with the idea for the show literally out of the blue in November 2016 when we had a slot to fill coming up in May. I started writing sometime around Christmas. That makes a six-month writing process. Many found it hard to believe that “Velvet Gentleman” could get from page to stage in such a short time frame.

However, Fred Alley and I wrote the bulk of our off-Broadway musical “The Spitfire Grill” in just nine months. Fred was daunted at the speed, but I knew from my years in New York that production opportunities do not grow on trees, so ahead we forged. I guess I thrive under pressure. That looming deadline is like my light at the end of a tunnel.

 

As to the second question — while I’d long been a slightly-more-than-casual fan of Satie’s music, the thought of actually playing him as a character, on stage, in a play, didn’t occur to me until November. I’m awfully glad it did, though. I had an absolutely marvelous time entering Satie’s mind and world.

My rather long-winded musings on “Velvet Gentleman” are an attempt to explain how you will see at TAP things you literally could not see anywhere else. We believe in taking risks, in having our audiences routinely expect the unexpected.

Next came TAP favorite Drew Brhel and new favorite Matt Frye in John Logan’s fascinating drama “Red.” No projections on the set this time, merely a huge canvas that was painted solid red during every performance and then needed to be wiped clean each night, only to be painted red all over again the next day. (Kudos once more to Logan Thomas and to our tireless college intern, Dana Cordry.) Director Bob Boles guided the fellas into giving two of the best performances we’ve ever seen on our little stage.

How to follow this? How about with another complete 180? How about a musical? (Or an opera, or an operetta, or whatever you want to call it?) How about “Candide?”

Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece, based on Voltaire’s masterpiece, spans the globe and takes in a few hundred characters. We did it with no set and a cast of eight. Several patrons who’d seen grandiose productions at world-class opera houses told me they liked ours better. The buzz around the county indicated that “Candide” was the must-see show of the summer. Some patrons saw the show five times.

Right now the TAP roller coaster is taking an extreme turn indeed. We’ve got beloved Door County actor Dan Klarer in the most unusual piece of theater I’ve ever seen. The play is called “Every Brilliant Thing,” and I can tell you that one brilliant thing is Dan himself. In his hands, the play feels more like a conversation than a performance.

During a talkback last weekend, an audience member insisted that Dan was making up the play on the spot and that he was telling his own personal story. Actually, it’s fully scripted and the story is completely fictional.

The play itself deals with important issues and is incredibly uplifting. All of us at TAP are proud to have taken a chance on this virtually unknown play. It truly feels like Dan gives the audience a gift at each performance.

And next? We return to somewhat more familiar territory in December with a “back by popular demand” production of “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol,” which will (like last year) feature Alan Kopischke’s tour-de-force performance as a few dozen Dickens characters in this twisted take on a holiday classic.

During the brief, brisk days of January, Team TAP will enjoy a little bit of quiet time before we gear up again for our second annual Play Reading Festival in February.

After that, anything could happen on the TAP stage. Anything. You can definitely expect the unexpected.