Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Play On

Olympia Little Theatre's latest

For reasons I can’t fathom, many community theaters seem to love doing comedies about badly acted and badly produced plays as presented by absurdly amateurish community theaters. Maybe they think their own productions will look good by comparison, or maybe they think missed cues and broken props and atrocious acting presented as comedy will cover up their own short comings.

I’ve seen some really bad theater about really bad theater in my time. I remember one that was done by a local theater at a small town high school, which I remember as being a complete disaster but which I was surprised to discover when I searched out my review to stimulate my memory, I had given a favorable review. There was another at a theatre in another small town that was so bad that I didn’t even save my review and have blocked the title from memory. All I can remember of it is that the audience howled with laughter while I felt sick at my stomach. I recall that the set kept falling apart piece by piece. The worst of all was a play that had what seemed like about 50 set changes with stagehands bumping into each other and at one point the director coming out to stop a stagehand, turn him around and push him in the other direction.

The gold standard for this sub-genre of comedy is “Noises Off,” which is not so much about bad acting as it is about everything else that can possibly go wrong in a theatrical production. Olympia Little Theatre advertises its current production of Rick Abbot’s “Play On” as a comedy “in the tradition of ‘Noises Off’.” 

I groaned a lot and laughed a little during the 2 ½ hours of this farce.  I dislike panning local amateur theater. I didn’t get into this in order to be snarky and get in sarcastic little digs at the dedicated theater people who put their hearts into their work. But I’m hard pressed to find anything good to say about this play.

It’s the story of a hard working but inept theater group trying to put on a play written by a local playwright, Phyllis Montague (Kendra Malm) who keeps making stupid changes to the script right up to opening night. The play is called “Murder Most Foul.”

Geraldine “Gerry” Dunbar (Jamie Jenson), the director of the play-within-a-play, is frustrated; one leading actress, Polly Benish (Carol Richmond), is a self-centered diva whom everyone but her doting husband, Henry (John Pratt) despises; and the other leading actress, Violet (Amanda Wagaman) is an ingénue with a pea-sized brain. The leading man, Billy (as played by Justin Smith), is the worst actor ever to set foot on stage. The problem with Smith’s acting is that he overacts almost as much in the role of Billy as he does as Billy’s character Stephen in “Murder Most Foul.” 

Bad acting is not funny -- unless it is done by a great actor to comic effect. That’s what is supposed to happen here, but with few exceptions it does not. Matt Garry pulls it off pretty well as the villainous Saul Watson (silly as it may seem, I really liked his drawn-on mustache, which is much longer on one side than the other), and Wagaman does a credible job of depicting ditsy Violet as an actress who struggles with her lines and with which words to emphasize. Some of the better writing and acting is displayed when she demonstrates how slight changes in emphasis can completely alter the meaning of a sentence.

The best thing about this show is the program for the play “Murder Most Foul,” which is stuffed inside the program for “Play On.” This program-within-a-program for the play-within-a-play is a fun satire of small town theater programs, and it is filled with in-jokes.

WHEN: 7:55 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 1:55 p.m. Sunday through June 26
WHERE: Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave., NE, Olympia
TICKETS: $10-$12, available at Yenney Music Company on Harrison Avenue (360-943-7500) or
INFORMATION: 360--786-9484,

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