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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Humana Festival Opens with "Madcap," Crowd-Pleasing Satire


The Veri**on Play
by Lisa Kron
directed by Nicholas Martin

A review by Keith Waits.

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.


The opening slot in Actors Theatre's 36th Humana Festival of New American Plays should play like a shot across the bow: a fast and funny declaration of intent that what follows will be fresh, inventive and perhaps, with some luck, provocative. The Veri**on Play certainly fulfills this goal and then some, setting the bar high for the remainder of the Festival entries.

Borne of the playwright’s own frustrating experience with her phone company, the story follows the naive and trusting Jenni as she moves from patience to militancy in her struggle to win satisfaction from the world of Customer Service. As played by the author herself, Jenni has a winning-every-person quality that gains the audience’s empathy quickly and drags them easily into the wilder, more freewheeling aspects of the journey. Jenni joins a support group for customer service victims called PHBICS – “People Hurt Badly by Inadequate Customer Service,” populated by some comically damaged characters who actually have a much larger agenda – and conspiracy – on their minds. I wouldn’t dare say more, but suffice it to say that their efforts result in some truly madcap globe-trotting adventures that are as hilarious as they are unexpected.

Scene from The Veri**on Play.

Ms. Kron has more on her mind than a simple satire of customer service issues, slyly depicting eccentric yet highly individual characters rebelling against the corporate forces that increasingly control every aspect of modern life. It is a comic updating of the concept of Future Shock cross-bred with a tongue-in-cheek action film, staged with enough audacious cleverness to keep the balloon in the air for more than 90 minutes (without intermission), if just barely. By the time the play ends on a decidedly upbeat, populist note, it was clear that the energy and pace had stumbled ever so slightly around the 80-minute mark – but the warmly appreciative audience hardly seemed to notice.

Ms. Kron’s ingratiating work in the lead was ably supported by a hard-working ensemble called upon to play multiple roles. Hannah Bos as Ingrid/Cydney takes this idea to an absurd degree that at one point engages the audience so fully in the artifice as to render the “fourth wall” meaningless. How nimbly she switches character on, quite literally, the spin of a heel was a sight to see. The other players were right there with her, and in the guise of their PHBICS characters, especially, were given to crowd-pleasing moments of verbal and physical slapstick of great endearment. It was a pleasure to see the gifted Joel Van Liew return to Actors Theatre after his memorable work in Pride and Prejudice a couple of seasons ago; and Ching Valdes-Aran, Calvin Smith and Kimberly Hébert-Gregory filled out the rest superbly, with Carolyn Baeumler as Anissa, Jenni’s sister with a secret, and Clayton Dean Smith proving once again how “utility players” can seem to be having the most fun onstage.

Another unexpectedly important quality was the music, with dense and vivid transitional pieces composed by noted Broadway composer Jeanine Tesori (a past collaborator with Lisa Kron) that include some measure of musical performance ably supervised by local music and theatre veteran Scott Anthony. Another local talent, Delilah Smyth, served as Movement Director.

A smart and nimble script that meshes pointed satire and call-to-arms populism with surprising ease, The Veri**son Play wins the hearts and minds of the audience with unashamed low-brow humor and shoot-the-moon energy.

The Veri**on Play

February 26 – April 1, 2012

Actors Theatre
Bingham Theatre
Third & Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
502-584-1205
ActorsTheatre.org


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