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It Is Magic
by Mickle Maher
Directed by Suki Peters
The Midnight Company
October 21, 2021

Michelle Hand, Chrissie Watkins, Nicole Angeli
Photo by Camille Mahs
The Midnight Company

There is magic in the theatre, but there can also be stagnation, monotony, rejection, competing egos, and jaded artistic directors with ulterior motives.  These ideas are some of what you can draw from The Midnight Company’s latest production, although there are many more thoughts and ideas you can also derive from this darkly comic, outrageously unpredictable, and ultimately riveting production that just opened at the Kranzberg Arts Center.  The production is called It Is Magic, and as directed by Suki Peters and featuring a stellar cast, it actually is quite magical. 

One of the many highlights of this show is the construction of it, and its sheer sense of thrill-ride unpredictability. It starts out as one thing, then morphs into something else, and then still into another thing, with a steady and relentless pace as it tells its story with dark, twisted abandon. Overall, it’s about theatre, and there’s a lot of biting satire here, but there’s also a sense of subversion about it that doesn’t seem apparent at the start. As the play opens, we’re in the basement of the Mortier Civic Playhouse, where the determined Deb Chandler (Michelle Hand) is conducting auditions for her new adaptation of “The Three Little Pigs” for adult audiences. As the good-natured perennial bit-player Tim Padley (Carl Overly, Jr.) auditions for the lead role of the Wolf, Deb’s glum sister Sandy (Nicole Angeli), who also wants the part, looks on. After Deb has stopped the audition several times with some somewhat overzealous “notes” and the audience might start to think this play is something along the lines of the modern classic film Waiting For Guffman,  pontificating artistic director Ken Mason (Joe Hanrahan) arrives from upstairs, where he’s directing a production of “The Scottish Play” (Macbeth) on the Playhouse’s Main Stage. Ken is looking for Tim, who is supposed to go onstage as the Second Murderer very soon, even though Deb keeps detaining him because, even though she’s determined that Tim should get the part of the Wolf, something’s not quite right. That’s just the beginning of the story as things start to get more unusual, and then even more so, as eventually Elizabeth (Chrissie Watkins) shows up to the audition claiming to know Deb and Sandy, although they don’t seem to remember her. From there, the surprises keep coming as the show veers from straight-up comedy, to flirtations with melodrama, and then crashes back into comedy with a decidedly dark tone, and all the while there are building elements of mystery and, yes, magic. 

That’s about as far as I want to go with the plot synopsis, because the unfolding mystery and unpredictable, perpetual surprise element of the story is the real driving force of this production. On the way, though, there is a fair amount of skewering of theatre tropes, like the audition process, self-important artists, the cult of personality, and more. There’s also a fun blend of the fairy tale elements with themes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and aspects of fantasy and even horror. Underneath all the jokes, plot developments, surprises, and revelations, though, is an exploration of the purpose of theatre and its importance, and the tension between the desire to create and to challenge, and the temptation to slide into a sense of the mundane and mediocre.  

The black box theatre at the Kranzberg is the ideal place for a show like this. The minimal set by Kevin Bowman, and the lighting, also by Bowman, provide an all-too realistic setting for this depiction of a small community theatre audition and rehearsal space. The characters are also outfitted ideally in Liz Henning’s striking costumes, and director Peters–who is especially adept with comedy–has paced the show with a precise sense of timing, bringing the absolute best out of her excellent cast.

And that cast is truly marvelous. Everyone is ideally cast. Hand, as the self-doubting, all-too-earnest Deb projects a sense of both mounting desperation and hopeful determination, along with a somewhat unsettling hero-worship of Ken, who is played by Hanrahan with an outward wit and charm that still doesn’t disguise his underlying condescension and controlling nature. There’s also impressive work from Angeli, who gives a multilayered performance, bringing out a sense of melancholy, bitterness, determination, and an ember of hope to the ever-rejected Sandy, who is eager for a chance to finally get a part in a play, but also has some other surprising motives. Overly, as the good-natured but increasingly exasperated Tim, is also strong, with some surprises of his own; and Watkins brings a fierce intensity to her game-changing role as Elizabeth. All of the players work well together, with much of the comedy, tension, and energy coming from their various interactions.

I wish I could write more about exactly what this play is about, but really, this is the kind of show that needs to be seen to be believed. It’s also a show that should raise some challenging questions concerning the purpose and nature of theatre itself. it’s a fascinating, riveting and genuinely hilarious play to watch. It’s an impressive show from The Midnight Company, that usually (but not always) produces one-person shows, especially considering the fact that the ensemble chemistry makes this production all the more compelling. And absolutely, like the title says, It Is Magic.

Joe Hanrahan, Carl Overly, Jr.
Photo by Camille Mahs
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is presenting It Is Magic at the Kranzberg Arts Center until November 6, 2021

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AN APOLOGY For the Course And Outcome of Certain Events Delivered By DOCTOR JOHN FAUSTUS On This HIs Final Evening
and The Hunchback Variations
By Mickle Maher
The Midnight Company
September 21, 2018

It’s FAUSTival part 2! As the latest entry in the extended “festival” featuring works from various local theatre companies, Joe Hanrahan’s Midnight Company is presenting something that’s appropriately Faustian and also reflective of the Midnight Company’s offbeat style. And, also as is usual for this company, the result is well-cast, thoughtful, and fascinating.

A revival of a production staged a few years ago, this is a set of two separate one-act pieces, one of which is a “Faust” tale. Both, however, are somewhat metaphysical explorations of concepts and characters. AN APOLOGY… is, essential, just what the title says. Here, Hanrahan plays Dr. John Faustus on the last day of his life on earth, having agreed to sell his soul 20 years earlier to Mephistopheles (David Wassilak), who spends most of the play looming in the background, clad in black velvet and wearing sunglasses and appearing somewhat bored of Faustus’s whole spiel. For Faustus’s part, he’s in regret mode, as well as desperate to hold on to a semblance of privacy as he recounts his efforts to keep some privacy from Mephistopheles, who as part of the agreement has lived as Faustus’s servant for the past 20 years, a constant, annoying presence and reminder of Faustus’s pride and rashness. The casting here is strong, with Wassilak’s presence being suitably menacing by just sitting there most of the time, and Hanrahan’s Faustus being increasingly desperate and grasping for some sort of meaning in his life that’s about to end in moments. Since it’s essentially a long speech with a few brief interruptions by Mephistopheles, it does tend to get rambling and a little hard to follow at times, although Hanrahan’s presence keeps it interesting, as do some clever immersive elements involving Faustus handing out beer and chips to the audience.  It’s a particularly philosphical and condensed take on the “Faust” story, with more of an introspective focus as Faust tries to gain the audience’s sympathy.

While An Apology… certainly has its moments, especially in terms of its exploration of language and the concept of time and the overall brevity of life, the more entertaining piece of the evening is the more fast-moving, comic seminar-styled The Hunchback Variations. Here, there’s much more of a focus on humor, and the situation is even more bizarre than it is in the first play.  Here, the audience is given an imaginary scenario in which composer Ludwig Van Beethoven (Hanrahan) and Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame character, Quasimodo (Wassilak) are seated at a table littered with various offbeat musical instruments (kazoo, tin whistle, etc.) and are giving a lecture recounting their efforts to identify an elusive sound described in a stage direction in Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard. The show is essentially a series of vignettes, with similar staging and introduction, as the two, usually led by the more outwardly confident Beethoven, recount their efforts to meet and discover this mysterious sound, as the more sullen, earnest Quasimodo plays various sounds and expresses more of an initially pessimistic outlook about their meetings. This is a fascinating play on many levels–first, it’s hilarious, and the comic timing is impeccable. Second, it’s also kind of sad, as we see the futility and failure of the endeavor as they recount attempt after attempt with the big unasked question lingering in the air–what’s the point? The interplay between these two characters presents their relationship as sometimes companions in futility, sometimes frenemies. It’s an intriguing dynamic to watch, and both players play their parts extremely well, from Hanrahan’s bossy, overconfident Beethoven to Wassilak’s gruff-voiced, weary but still hopeful Quasimodo.

Both of these plays are presented in a small backroom at the Monocle bar in the Grove neighborhood, and the intimate setting adds to the mood in both plays. This is a thoughtful, sometimes funny, somtimes profound, always unusual production, showcasing two excellent local actors. It’s a worthwhile theatrical experience.

The Midnight Company is presenting AN APOLOGY and The Hunchback Variations at the Monocle until September 29, 2018

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