MU Summer Rep Theatre presents comedy, ingenuity

Thursday, July 10, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
The MU Department of Theatre is putting on its annual summer repertory season, featuring two performances of David Crespy's "Comedies-in-Concert" series and two full-stage plays, "Is He Dead?" and "The Drowsy Chaperone."

COLUMBIA — On stage, Thiago Palma drops to one knee and proposes to a petrified Scott McDonald, who falls backward before being caught by Jackson Harned and Matt Ingram.

From the second row, director Cheryl Black laughs loudly. "Very good," she said, signaling the end of Act I of "Is He Dead?" and the beginning of the rehearsal’s intermission.

If you go

"The Drowsy Chaperone"

  • When: 7:30 p.m. July 10, 11, 17, 19 and 23; 2 p.m. July 19, 20 and 23
  • Where: Rhynsburger Theatre, 129 Fine Arts Building
  • Admission: $12.50 general public; $10 65 and older

"Is He Dead?"

  • When: 7:30 p.m. July 12, 13, 16 and 18; 2:00 p.m. July 13 and 16
  • Where: Rhynsburger Theatre, 129 Fine Arts Building
  • Admission: $12.50 general public; $10 65 and older

"Orange Fly's"

  • When: 7:00 p.m. July 15
  • Where: Rhynsburger Theatre, 129 Fine Arts Building
  • Admission: $5

"The Short Knight"

  • When: 7:00 p.m. July 22
  • Where: Rhynsburger Theatre, 129 Fine Arts Building
  • Admission: $5

Tickets online

For more info

Opening night is upon the cast, and the actors will use what little remains of their rehearsal time to iron out the subtleties of timing, play with slight changes in positioning and test variations on the intonation of their lines. Adjunct associate professor of theater Dean Packard operates the lighting board, splashing light blue, rouge and gold across the stage.

The MU Department of Theatre kicks off its 76th summer repertory season on Thursday with a performance of "The Drowsy Chaperone." Also featured are an adaptation of Mark Twain's "Is He Dead?" and two special performances of  "Comedies-in-Concert."

Black, a theater professor, is directing David Ives’ adaptation of "Is He Dead?" The play takes place at an artist’s collective in Barbizon, France, and is a fictionalized caper involving French painter Jean-François Millet.

Dani Mann plays Cecile Leroux, the girlfriend of Chicago, a member of Millet's inner circle. She described her character as high maintenance.

"She is a young, jealous French woman," Mann said. "She gets so jealous of her boyfriend that she wants to sneak on him. Dresses up as a man."

The relationship between Leroux and Chicago provides a unique comedic dynamic, Mann said. Chicago, the only American character in the play, plays the role of the plotter and the driving force of the story, she said.

Mann got involved in Summer Rep Theatre through Performing Arts in Children's Education (PACE), a Columbia youth theater group. When she entered MU, she realized that the theater department had an abundance of interesting directors, she said. She met Black this past summer when the pair worked on a production of "Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure."

Black chose "Is He Dead?" in part because the play was written by Twain. She explained the importance of the Missouri connection and of Twain's "signature vocabulary and way of writing, his wit and his expressions" as a source of the comedy’s charm.

"It’s so ironic," Black said. "The premise is that an artist is never appreciated until after he’s dead, and now here’s this play that Twain wrote in 1898 and was never produced until long after he was dead, until 2007, in fact."

Jim Miller, a theater professor, is directing "The Drowsy Chaperone." The musical comedy is a satire of life in the 1920s. Jazz Age stereotypes such as the urban gangster, the pompous Broadway type and the buffoonish Latin lover are a few of the targets of ridicule, he said.

"It’s so silly that it breaks the fourth wall," Miller said, referring to an imaginary barrier between the audience and the cast.

Alluding to the comic dynamic popularized by venerable vaudevillians George Burns and Gracie Allen, Miller said he expected the brand of humor to make audience members groan, then laugh.

Miller was particularly enthusiastic about the performances of students Palma and Tori Stepanek. Miller has several decades of theater experience at MU, including instructing a young Jon Hamm in productions of "Cabaret" and "Assassins."

"It’s a great experience to have the opportunity to play characters you wouldn’t in a professional setting," Palma said during the break in rehearsal. "I happen to be cast multiple times as the villain, antagonist."

Actor Bill Dew weighed in. "You have a very strong voice," he said.

Palma looked thoughtful. "I don’t think I’ll ever have the opportunity to play the straight lead," he said. "I like to be the villain. The villain provides conflict. If there is no conflict, there is no story."

Both directors chose cheery comedies for their broad appeals and family-friendly natures. For Miller and Black, opening night is a chance to step back from the technical intricacies of directing and to take in the action on stage as well as the audience reaction.

Many actors in this summer’s performances, including Palma, Dew, Gina Drapela and Connor Relyea, are cast in both shows. Dew plays three separate roles in "Is He Dead?" and the character Man in Chair in "The Drowsy Chaperone." The latter character is the de facto narrator and is on stage for almost all of the performance.

"He is a bit of a recluse who plays out these musicals in his head," said Dew, referring to Man in Chair’s hallucinatory appearance. The character often breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly into the audience and inevitably drawing them partially into the play.

David Crespy’s "Comedies-in-Concert" series employs a distinctly different approach. "The Drowsy Chaperone" and "Is He Dead?" are full-stage productions, but the two plays overseen by Crespy will be read, rehearsed and performed on the same day.

The cast will gather at 9 a.m. to read the final draft of the script until noon. After lunch, they will spend about three hours staging the play as Crespy offers advice on details, such as how a character should enter or exit a scene. After a brief respite to allow the actors to eat, drink and be human, the play begins.

"Somewhere around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we’re all out of our minds and can’t believe we’re doing this, but at 7, we go on stage," Crespy said. "And every audience has loved it."

MU undergraduate student Julia Plant wrote "Orange Fly’s." This satire based on her experiences as a waitress will run July 15. "The Short Knight" was written by MU alumnus Chad Parmenter and inspired by the suspenseful style of Alfred Hitchcock. It will be performed on July 22.

With very few formal dramatic effects such as props or costumes, audiences for "Orange Fly’s" and "The Short Knight" will rely on what Crespy calls "theater of the imagination."

"Actors love the fact that we put this thing together in a single day," Crespy said. "It’s an exhilarating experience and an exhausting experience."

The "Comedies-in-Concert" performances are dark comedies geared toward older audiences. Crespy advocated viewer discretion. "These are adult plays," he said. "Don’t bring the little people."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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