UpStage Theatre's Third Annual Festival of Comedy: Light Summer Fare with Some Laughs

The setup: For the third year, UpStage Theatre presents a Festival of Comedy, for which they read 200 scripts, narrowed them down to 11 finalists, then selected four for production. There is the limiting stipulation that the plays submitted for consideration be "family-friendly comedy" -- I'm not quite sure what that means, but it certainly rules out Medea.

The execution:

Finished sets are difficult when there are four unrelated plays, so the ample stage at Lambert Hall is dressed with a few pieces of furniture, sufficient to set the scene. I liked the closing play, Scene Change, by Scott Tobin, best; it's a fresh and hilarious farce in which two actors (Michael Eckenfels and Barbara Dell) end a scene with a blackout and wait patiently for a scene change, while two crew gals and a guy (Jana Smith, Janina Gebel and Stephan Krosecz) struggle to implement the changes. They are hopelessly inept, but are united by supreme self-confidence and the smug conviction of their talents, as they create chaos and spill a variety of liquids on the long-suffering and incredibly patient actors. It's mostly pantomime in subdued light, and, like all good farces, it has a capper to top it off, provided brilliantly by Krosecz. It's directed with rapid pace and engaging energy by Sean K. Thompson, and the accompanying music, which is part of the fun, is captivating.

The third play, Emergency Room by Jeff Stolzer, opens Act Two and lampoons the high costs that can be charged for treatment in a hospital's emergency room. I say lampoon because satire uses the stiletto, while here it's more of a blunderbuss, using exaggeration to make its point. The saving grace is an excellent performance by Scott Holmes as the hospital attendant who totals up the bill, to amusing sound effects; he can make the simple phrase "small print" very funny indeed. His poise, energy, expressive face and comic timing add this role to a long list of triumphs on local stages. David Hymel as the hapless patient is good but has little to do except be a foil. Sonia Kronberg plays a security guard, but it's a throwaway role, underwritten by Stolzer, and director Crys Hymel hasn't found a way to make it interesting.

Act One ends with The Way We Were (Marketed) by Stephen Stewart. Director Alan Johnson finds the humor -- and you probably have the characters in your attic -- in Barbie and Ken and G.I. Joe. Their marketing director is played by Rich Taylor with authority and style, and Mandy Rubio as an executive assistant is poised and attractive. Ashley McQueen plays Barbie and brings appropriately glacial beauty and deft line delivery -- I liked her enormously. The parts of the male icons are minimal -- Brian Kondrach is Ken and Steve Rodriguez is G.I. Joe -- but Kondrach creates a vivid character nonetheless through an engaging, goofy smile, perhaps to compensate for his lack of plumbing equipment.

The opening play is Super Salad Days, by Sean K. Thompson, as aging -- very aging -- action heroes gear up for one more battle. It's the kind of script that looks better on the page than on the stage. The sight of actors well past the first blush of youth garbed in tights meant for athletic bodies may amuse some, but I'm not one of them. I did like Anne Boyd as a dowager femme fatale who generated courtly charm and mature appeal, and I admired Gene Griesbach for retaining some dignity and authority as a paunchy Captain Avenger. And Scott Thornton had the courage to wear a bare-midriff costume as Blinky the Boy Wonder -- no longer a boy, get it? -- there's the humor. There's a running gag as the heroes exit awkwardly through a window instead of a door and the audience seemed to enjoy this. There's a bit of a plot and some amorous entanglements among the superheroes, and the cast of ten was directed by Shawn Havranek.

The verdict:

Even for summer, this is light fare, but there are amusing moments and some excellent acting by pros. Sit back and savor the charm and laughs as they flicker by -- and you'll love Scene Change.

The 3rd Annual Festival of Comedy continues through August 25, from UpStage Theatre, at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Blvd. For information or ticketing, call 713-838-7191 or visit the company website.

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Jim Tommaney