It’s a wonderful thing when a writer finds his voice. The golden skies open wide as laughing mouths, and waves of thunder roar down from the heavens like applause. Perhaps the moment is not always as grandiose as this. Sometimes it may be accompanied only by the sudden nod of a hungry seagull’s head.
Regardless of how the cosmos deals with this momentous occasion, in the case of Royce Rolstad, this finding of comic vocalization came in his play “Murder at the Chapman,” that drew a large crowd last weekend at all three performances at the Chapman Auditorium, more than 600, and that’s not including people who got in free, like me.
Rolstad, a master showman who wrote and directed the production, did everything including act in it. His confidence was abundant, up to and including tracking the box office numbers on his cell phone right up until curtain time, like a nervous poker player constantly looking at his cards.
As it turned out, he won the hand, gambling that an ensemble of his favorite local comic actors would bring out the outrageous har-de-har-hars that stem from uninhibited silliness. And, very importantly, add a considerable number of their own creative lines and touches. From the beginning, when leading lady Megan Shiver’s elementary school aged son Solamyn strode onstage looking dapper in a crisp new suit and did an unmistakable Hitchcock impersonation, it was time for everyone to loosen their ties and have a little fun.
Certainly, this was not a comedy with any lasting insights, or deep reflections on the suffering in life that can be soothed by laughter. It did not show us a fresh way to take the human condition with a smile. Or did it? Like the first show of the season by Jerry Hurley, who made an appearance in this show alongside Sally Crown as annoying tourists who happen to be homicidal at the Gibson Inn, the script took on death, but exaggerated and befuddled it. It didn’t think too much about the prospects of that dismal reckoning.
The plot centered around amateur actors rehearsing for a mystery confronted with a real-life death in their midst, and then carrying on in a childish manner, perpetuating their petty bickering and overblown vanities. Because it’s a subject Rolstad knows well, being a chieftain amongst us buffoons since he’s Panhandle Players president himself, and because both he and the cast knew when not to take anything too seriously, the entire play brought enjoyment.
There is no point citing each actor’s performance in detail, since the characters were drawn not so much deeply as vividly, so I will use one sensory word to describe each of them, with the exception of one. As the lead actor, Gary Niblack – Steamed. As the lead actress, Faith Ward – Blustery. As the president of the board, Jeana Crozier – Bossy. As the house manager, Megan Shiver – Sly. As the wannabe actor, Steve Allen – Fuming. As his partner, Judy Loftus – Huffy. As the stage manager, Bob Inguagiato – Pissed. As the understudy, Bob Caiola – Prissy.
But as the reporter in the play, oddly named David, Eric Olson deserves more than a few words. This tall, slim bodybuilder was terribly miscast. You’re telling me Rolstad couldn’t find someone 20 years older, with a head of gray hair, shorter and 10 or 20 pounds overweight? OK, 37, maybe 38 pounds overweight. Is that too much to ask?
Look, Royce, the show was funny, it had brisk lines and moved with a welcoming, unpretentious air, a clear sign you’re finding your voice of dramatic silliness. I’m just saying that one character insulted the fine institution of journalism all the way from Sopchoppy to Two Egg, and very nearly left a giant blue ink stain on the production’s breast pocket.
One last thing – special credit goes to Crown’s dog, Hobart, who made the most out of a laughable limp that he not long ago sustained when he pulled a ligament.
At least he wasn’t miscast.
David Adlerstein is a member of the Panhandle Players board of directors. He rarely agrees with them, but tolerates them anyway.