Monday, December 8, 2014

Barefoot in the Park at Olympia Little Theatre

Jennie Jenks as Mrs. Banks and Phil Folan as Victor Velasco in Barefoot in the Park. Photo by Austin Lang.

Critics and the more jaded of theater goers tend to be dismissive of Neil Simon. Maybe I’m not all that jaded yet. I enjoy Simon’s comedies. They’re as funny and as socially relevant as some of TV’s best sitcoms (“The Dick Van Dyke Show” comes to mind).
Simon’s Barefoot in the Park at Olympia Little Theatre is as fresh as homemade bread steaming hot out of the oven thanks to a cast of exuberant young actors and one seasoned pro. (Note: “young” can be a relative term. They’re young to me and according to the printed program most of their previous acting experience has either been in school productions or in theaters I’ve never heard of, so I view them as novices.)

Joanna Gibson as Corie and Alex Harris as Paul. Photo by Austin Lang.
The young actors are Joanna Gibson as Corie Bratter (well named because she’s something of a brat, but loveable); Anthony Neff as the unnamed telephone repairman, Phil Folan as Victor Velasco; and Alex Harris as Corie’s put-upon husband, Paul. The more experienced actor who is solid in her role as Corie’s mother is Jennie Jenks, familiar to South Sound audiences for her performances in Orphan Train at Olympia Family Theatre, The Dixie Swim Club at OLT, and Hyde #4 in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at Tacoma Little Theatre to name just a few.
There’s an old saying Don’t let ’em see you acting. Never for a moment do these actors—except for Folan—appear to be acting. Each of them dives into their roles with energy and enthusiasm. As for Folan . . . well, Mr. Velasco, who lives upstairs and gets home by slipping through the Bratters’ bedroom window and crawling across the roof, is flamboyant and pretentious and constantly “on stage,” so the audience is supposed to see him acting.
There’s not much of a story, but there is funny dialogue and outlandish physical comedy. Corie and Paul are newlyweds. Corie (not so much Paul) is still enraptured by the bliss of new love. She can’t keep her hands off her husband—practically knocks him back down five flights of stairs plus a stoop when she leaps on him as soon as he comes home from work on their first day in their new 48th Street apartment. They’re visited first by the phone man, then by Corie’s mother, who makes a valiant effort of pretending to like the apartment, and then by Velasco. Corie cooks up a harebrained scheme to set up a blind date with Velasco and her mother. Naturally things go comedically awry.
Everyone in the cast plays their part with gusto while remaining just barely believable and natural. There is a bit of excessive drama on the part of almost every actor, seen mostly in their initial entrances when they are wiped out by climbing the steps to the Bratters’ apartment. It is not totally believable that anyone would be so thoroughly out of breath unless they suffer from emphysema and have just run forty blocks. But it’s for comedic effect, and if you allow for a little unreality it is hilarious.
I can’t remember when I’ve seen an actor dive into a role with such verve as does Gibson. From her first entrance she is an explosion of high energy and higher hopes. Constantly running around the apartment, she is a perky Pollyanna who never puts on the brakes. I can’t imagine anyone not loving her. I’d like to mention one moment that illustrates Gibson’s acting skill. It’s when she’s tasting an exotic dish Velasco has prepared. She drops it on the floor, picks it up with a tiny sparkle of a shrug that is so perfect to the moment that I defy anyone who has not read the script to know whether it was an adlib covering the drop or if it was scripted, and pops it in her mouth.
In contrast to Corie’s unbridled exuberance, Paul, as portrayed by Harris, is more down to earth, so much so that Corie understandably accuses him of being a stuffed shirt. But as the play progresses he loosens up. Or rather he falls apart. Of all the actors, he is the one who seems most natural, and when he does lose his composure he does it wholeheartedly. He’s the reason I thought of Dick Van Dyke in my opening remarks.
Moving forward with the sitcom analogy, Jenks reminds me of Vicki Lawrence on the old Carol Burnett show. Her malleable face expresses simultaneous revulsion and attraction to Velasco, and her love for her daughter and son-in-law.
Director Kendra Malm states in the program that this is her seventh show to direct for OLT. I’ve seen most of them, and this is by far her best directing outing. She changed the setting from February to December in order to make a Christmas play out of it. So far this season it is the least Christmasy show I’ve seen and the funniest.

WHEN: 7:55 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 1:55 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 21
WHERE: Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave., NE, Olympia
TICKETS: $10-$14 ($2 student discount), available at Yenney Music Company, 2703 Capital Mall Dr., (360) 943-7500 or
 INFORMATION: (360) 786-9484,

Coming soon: my review of The Head That Wouldn't Die.


Wheetiss said...

Alec, I believe the photo credit belongs to Austin C. Lang.

Alec Clayton said...

You're right. That's what I get for posting two different reviews so close together. I credited the photographer who did the photos for The Head That Wouldn't Die. I'll correct it. Thanks for pointing out my mistake.