Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Mar 7, 2014
04:37 PM
Stage Write

UT's A Night of One-Acts Showcases Students, Self-Awareness

PHOTO BY LILIANE CALFEE

Grandpa, is that you? Daniel Millhouse befuddles Heather Mann in ''dentity Crisis,' one of the two offerings in University Theatre's A Night of One Acts.

One-act plays can be like double-shots of espresso, with a punch of drama, comedy and dialogue packed into an hour-long window. Because they’re sometimes written early in a playwright’s career, they can also be like freshman English essays, ragged and filled with half-sketched ideas that don’t quite connect.

There are a little of both in the University Theatre’s current production, A Night of One Acts (playing in the Mitchell Theatre in Vilas Hall through March 14), in which UW’s current crop of MFA acting and directing students tackle the early works of established playwrights. In this case, it’s Beth Henley (best known for Crimes of the Heart) and Christopher Durang (of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You).

The grind of Hendrix on the radio and a cast extra dodging raindrops in a kaleidoscope-patterned dress are the cues that we’re in the ‘60s, but Henley’s Am I Blue? doesn’t feel anchored to its time period at all. The action focuses on the unexpected relationship between a pair of lonely people. One minute, frat boy John Polk-Richards (Adam Rowe-Johnson) is killing time in a bar waiting for the appointment with a hooker his frat brothers have given him for his eighteenth birthday, the next he’s drinking rum with blue food coloring and designing goofy paper hats in the apartment of the virtually orphaned sixteen-year-old Ashbe Williams (Bridgett Vanderhoof).

Henley’s script heavily tilts the balance in favor of Ashbe, and Vanderwoof’s hopped-up hummingbird performance only serves to further emphasize it. Where she’s manic and energetic, a rambunctious puppy dog in cat-eye glasses, Rowe-Johnson’s frat boy is shy, bland and passive. Rowe-Johnson does his best to interject some life into his character’s ponderous self-awakening, but the eventual connection between the characters doesn’t ring particularly true, and when the lights dim, you’re left with a lot more why and what happens next than real sense of truth.

The night’s second offering, Christopher Durang’s delightful crazy ‘dentity Crisis, also has its share of why and what happens next, but in an absolutely hilarious way. You expect anything-goes absurdity from Durang, and this look inside the mind of a disturbed girl delivers on multiple levels.  

As Jane (Kate Mann) flips listlessly through a magazine on the couch, the set crew steps on stage to gracefully arrange the clutter of furniture in front of her into a family living room. It’s an interesting and clever metaphor for the reality her broken mind has constructed.

And man, what a loopy realty it is. As Jane’s screwball mom Edith, Erin S. Baal is wide-eyed and antic, prancing around the room and talking about how she invented cheese (Madame Fromage!). She’s apparently having an illicit affair with Jane’s brother (Daniel Millhouse), who’s indistinguishable from Jane’s father, Jane’s grandfather and a flamboyant French count, depending on the prop Millhouse is holding. Jane’s psychologist and his wife (Gregory Blumfield and Andrea Kleiner) meanwhile, engage in some fruit-assisted gender-swapping, further bending the proceedings. The cast has a hysterical time vamping it up, and there’s plenty of jaw-dropping laughs.  

While it’s easy to be riveted and entertained by the crazy chaos, I was more drawn to Kate Mann’s terrific range of reactions. She nails her big monologue—you might never look the same way at Peter Pan after seeing this play—but she manages to convey even more with her looks of shock, bewilderment and horror. Student-director John Cooper does a great job with the stage choreography, filling the entire space and facilitating Millhouse’s often lightning-quick character transformations behind a couch and Baal’s back.

By the end of the night, the characters in these one-acts have learned some important things about themselves, and we’ve learned something, too—even when working with uneven material, the current crop of UW theater students has some serious talent.

A Night of One Acts runs through March 14 in the Mitchell Theatre in Vilas Hall on the UW campus. For more information, visit theater.wisc.edu.

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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