Saturday, April 7, 2012

Greg Kotis at the Humana Festival: When Will People Realize He’s America’s Funniest Playwright Right Now?

     Greg Kotis wrote the musical Urinetown over a decade ago and I still think there hasn’t been another original book of its caliber.  (Spring Awakening and Wicked have excellent books, but they were adapted from other works).  I was excited to hear that the Humana Festival of New Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville included his latest work this year so we decided to see it while my Mom was in town.

Dexter Makes a Guest Appearance on the Set of
Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards*
     Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards (Kotis has a penchant for peculiar titles) is a vampire story, but Michael is middle-aged, lonely, and despairing unlike the hot, young, photogenic bloodsuckers on Twilight, True Blood, and their ilk.  There are a number of respectful yet hilarious references to True Blood as two cops trade TV critiques while
investigating a situation they can’t quite and don’t want to believe in front of their eyes.  It’s a vampire story for a down turn in the economy where middle-aged men can no longer find a place for themselves to live or eat.

     The play flashes back and forth between the final Crusaders defending Constantinople against the Turks in 1453 and Michael’s contemporary rent-controlled apartment and, though it says it’s in an American city, I’d guess it’s in lower Manhattan or Brooklyn.  The ghosts of Michael’s wife and compatriot Otto appear to Michael between his dates for the next meal.  His landlady, Mrs. Rosemary, is highly suspicious and his only friend, Sammy, is about fed up with the situation and considering another hunting operation in Cincinnati.  That’s the set up and I’m not going to spoil it by describing anything further.

     Kotis has a very particular comic voice – it could become iconic if this script were to be picked up for a Broadway or Off-Broadway run and then land at regional theatres and then out to the hinterlands of colleges and community theatres.  That pattern sort of ended around the time that Neil Simon was in his prime.  In the past three decades, playwrights have had to make it through regional theatres, before going on to semi-professional and amateur productions.  It worked for Sam Shepard and a number of other playwrights, but the New York Broadway production is like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval because it tells ‘the Middle’ (define that however you like) that this writer deserves attention.  

     Kotis was a Neo-Futurist in the ‘90s in Chicago where that group presented ’30 Plays in 60 Minutes’ among a number of different cabaret style formats.  Though Chicago is the nucleus of American improvisatory theatre, the early ‘90s saw various groups taking their Second City and/or Improv Olympics training (incongruous settings, wild premises with political undertones, stock characters that revealed surprising edges) and applying it to written, rehearsed scripts that could be punched up or modified at a moment’s notice.  It also worked for writer-performers like Steven Colbert who did not break away from Second City.

     The comedy in Michael… happens because of the juxtaposition between the two settings and groups of characters that keep intruding upon one another with Michael caught in the middle and the tone of the dialogue that is both self-consciously grandiloquent and blasé – many times in the same line.  The characters mean more emotionally to an audience as the play continues.  A number of audience members, including my Mom, weren’t too sure about the play at intermission.  This was mainly due to a couple of scenes where Sammy ate the raw meat that Michael provided from his ‘dates.’  It was grotesque/hilarious, but I can understand why some people would have second thoughts later about the humor.  However, the production received a standing ovation and that’s tougher to attain in Louisville than it is in Cincinnati.

     My Mom summed up the experience as “I’m not sure about the story, but the acting was terrific.”  It is a great ensemble cast, all of whom have New York and regional credits.  Three of the female actors play two roles and a couple of them (Laura Heisler and Ariana Venturi) were unrecognizable in those role changes.   Rita Gardner, the original Girl in The Fantasticks, is a stitch as the landlady from hell who has the only moral compass in the script, and Caralyn Koslowski is both charming and highly competent with a sword as Michael’s two true loves.  John Ahlin gets laughs just walking on stage as Otto and Rufus Collins is a tender, compassionate, and pathetic Michael – he really does feel like a character that Neil Simon forgot to write (The Vampire of Second Avenue?).  Micah Stock plays Sammy with a deadpan Teutonic accent (continually, the vampires emphasize their Austrian – Aryan? – heritage) and an edge that is both very funny and deadly serious.  He’s a performer to watch.  I hope this production scares up a few more patrons.  It deservers a larger audience than the night we attended and a New York production.

*Original photo by Alan Simons.
Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards continues through April 15, 2012.

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