It’s nice to have Theater Undreground back. It’s been too long (well over a year) since they last brought their edgy irreverence to Richmond, IL. It was a cold night both outside and inside the theater when my wife and I went (Friday 1/25/13 – the furnace pipes had frozen), but the reception from TUG (as they call themselves) was heartwarming, and the performances at times fiery.
Doubting Thomason tells the story of a local theater company that, at the last minute, loses the rights to the play they’re about to perform (“Killer Joe,” a real-life play and film). Desperate, they resort to having one of the cast members, the titular Thomason, write a new play in a week — with the performance coming at the end of that same week. First performed in LA in the summer of 2011, Thomason isn’t a theater-scene regular (at least not yet), but it is amusing and certainly worth seeing. It’s also, believe it or not, based on actual events.
Maybe that’s why the show seemed to start slowly for me. The first scene stretched on a bit, and the theater actor characters seemed familiar almost to the point of cliche — the flamboyant gay prima donna, the blonde who will do anything to get ahead, the shy writer/actor, the stoner… Once the play within the play starts, though, the story — and the actors — really get cooking. The show then alternates between backstage antics in the real world, and onstage antics of the play within the play. There is strong language, violence, and plenty of sex. Plus some fun original songs by popular local performer Ian Hall.
All of the cast members give strong performances, most in two roles. Katelin Stack (Lynette/Bonnie) and Jessica Smith’s (Kate/Blake) “real life” personas are familiar, but their trailer trash play-within-a-play characters really give them a chance to cut loose. The same holds true with Ryan Tipton (Thomason/Roberts), Jonathan Mindham (Teddy/Lee), and Tim Vance (Jake/Murderin’ Ted). In fact, it’s the second personas that really make you like and appreciate the original ones (though, really, the meta-play characters are the more interesting). Lynn Homeier is the only cast member with just one role, Bunny, the increasingly stressed-out stage manager.
Each of the players has interesting moments and scenes, though for me it was Vance’s transformations that really kept the show rolling. His portrayal of Murderin’ Ted was simultaneously funny and menacing, playing to the cliches and playing off of them at the same time. Most of the cast also gets props for romping unselfconsciously around the stage in various states of undress — extra props for that on a night in which the theater’s heat wasn’t working.
Which brings me to something my wife asked after the show, “Is the show really daring? What makes a show daring?” Is it the concepts and themes, or is it the language, violence, and skin? To me, Thomason doesn’t seem like all that daring a venture. Sure, in Richmond strong language, some tough violence, and men and women in T-back thongs (and nothing else) may be “out there,” but if you ignore that (or are used to such things), it seems a fairly standard, if entertaining, play. If TUG’s people had chosen to perform many scenes in the nude, as it was done in LA, would that have made it more daring?
Probably too daring for Richmond, actually, where I noticed that more than a few blue-haired patrons didn’t return from the intermission (and not, I’d wager, just because of the cold) — but would more skin have made the other elements seem edgier … or deeper? I’m not sure, but I”m kinda sad I didn’t get the chance to find out. That’s not Theater Undreground’s fault; they were merely suiting their production to their location/audience, and they get props from me for pushing the show as far as they felt they could. Maybe someday Richmond will be ready for the less tame version.
First-time director Corey Keane and returning (but very young) veteran co-director Christian Baker have done a good job staging the production. The actors move around the stage well and make interesting use of the set and space. They get special props for staging the violent scenes (again probably very strong for rural Illinois) in a manner that had me cringing while actually showing very little. And, of course, the set gets busted up and there is a rubber chicken — both TUG traditions.
Overall, as I said at the top, it’s a show well worth seeing — but if you want’ to catch it, you’ll have to do so quickly. Doubting Thomason ends in Richmond on Saturday night, January 26, 2013. Tickets are $10 at the door, and $2 of each sale goes to local charity.