Audience chooses `Eat the Runt' casting

THEATER

At Spotlighters, an able cast makes the gimmick work

September 23, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

A very Crozier's Eat the Runt is a play with a gimmick: At each performance, the audience decides which actor plays which role.

Here's the way it works at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre. An actor - Tony Viglione at the performance I attended - comes out and identifies himself as the human resources coordinator at an art museum. After the rest of the cast joins him, he explains that, one by one, he will name a character and ask each actor to speak one of that character's lines. The audience votes, by applauding, on who gives the best line reading and wins the role.

The plot concerns an applicant for a job at the museum, so a format dependent on competing for roles is extremely fitting. Crozier has cleverly and conveniently given most of the characters gender-free names, such as "Chris" and "Jean." Because the play includes some coupling, the pairs can be heterosexual or homosexual, depending on who happens to be cast at any particular performance.

The format also requires the actors to learn every role. An obvious way to cast the production would be to choose actors of similar ages and types. Co-directors Bob Russell and Melainie Eifert, however, have gone the opposite route, selecting a cast that runs a wide gamut in every respect.

This ups the stakes, which is part of the fun. And, the Spotlighters' largely able cast members clearly are having a ball with their challenging task. With the exception of a couple of pronoun slip-ups, everything went pretty smoothly when I was there. Indeed, a few portrayals - particularly those of Denis L. Latkowski as the applicant and Ann Marie Feild as the curator of modern art - were so strongly quirky, they made you wonder how the other actors handle the same assignments.

Needless to say, Crozier's strategy doesn't leave much - make that, any - room for character development. The playwright does, however, toss in some plot twists; appropriately, these also involve role playing.

There are one or two serious themes underlying the switcheroos. Crozier may be intending to suggest that we are all interchangeable or even replaceable. Or perhaps the writer is just throwing stones at slipshod hiring practices. Overall, however, Eat the Runt isn't the kind of play that lends itself to thematic probing. It's more like an intricate parlor game played in front of a paying audience.

Nor is this the first show in which theatergoers determine the course of events. In the musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the audience gets to chose the ending to Dickens' unfinished mystery. In Clue, The Musical, the audience selects game cards that identify the murderer, weapon and scene of the crime.

I don't know of any other shows in which the audience gets to serve as casting director, however. In Eat the Runt, this means that if you feel someone is miscast, you have only yourself to blame. And, you can always attend another performance and have a go at it again. After all, as the human resources coordinator says at the start, "It's a different show every night."

Show times at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul Street, are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 2. Tickets are $12. For more information, call 410-752-1225.

`Snoopy!!!' hangs on

Todd Pearthree has staged a lot of shows outdoors over the years. His Pumpkin Theatre production of the musical Snoopy!!!, however, wasn't supposed to be one of them. But when the power failed 45 minutes before Sunday's final 3 p.m. performance at St. Timothy's School, Pearthree turned to his stage manager and announced: "Everybody grab an oversized block or an oversized dog house and the props and let's go to the soccer field."

Pearthree, who is Pumpkin's producer/director, said all but two of the 300-plus audience members stayed and took seats in the bleachers. "It really was right out of MGM. I turned at one point, and Brent Bell, Albert Blaize and Michael Himelfarb, who played Linus, Woodstock's dad and Snoopy, were pushing a piano up the driveway."

The power, which was out throughout the neighborhood, was restored halfway into the performance, but the intermission-less show continued in its impromptu al fresco setting. For the young audience members at this children's theater, it was a real-life example of one of the most famous lessons in theater: "The show must go on."

Uggams joins `Pond'

Leslie Uggams has replaced Diahann Carroll as James Earl Jones' co-star in the Kennedy Center production of On Golden Pond. Performances of the Ernest Thompson play will still begin Tuesday, as scheduled.

Carroll withdrew after suffering a back injury last weekend. Uggams, a Tony Award winner for Hallelujah, Baby!, most recently appeared at the Kennedy Center in 2001 in August Wilson's King Hedley II. When the play moved to Broadway, her portrayal of the mother earned her a second Tony nomination.

On Golden Pond will run Sept. 28-Oct. 17. For more information, call 800-444-1324 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.

Playwrights awards

A newcomer was the big winner at the Baltimore Playwrights Festival's awards ceremony at Center Stage on Monday. Top honors for best play and best production went to Fell's Point Corner Theatre's Partners, a play by first-time festival playwright Paul Bogas. A U.S. administrative law judge, Bogas also took home the second place award in the best-play category for his play, The Throne Builders.

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