When the Phoenix Theatre invited the public to attend a rehearsal during third Thursday Art Walk in January, I decided it would be fun to go check it out.
Alas, there were no epic battles of the will, no explosions of ego to report. Just a bunch of highly competent actors going about conducting one of the dozens of rehearsals necessary to bring a quality production to the stage for us.
Speaking of the stage, it was a complete shambles — unfinished lumber was strewn everywhere and the smell of sawdust was in the air. The construction crew ran saws and pounded nails right up to the moment director Eric Lewis started rehearsal.
One of the interesting aspects of Phoenix’s latest play is the use of the raked stage. Raked stages were popular back in Elizabethan England. Constructed at a slant of 5 to 10 degrees or so, the characters in back could be seen over the characters in front – that’s where the stage directions still in use today “upstage” and “downstage” come from.
It creates an additional challenge to the actors who are always compensating for the un-level floor beneath them. I had to admire the sure-footed cast. There’s also a surprise in store for the audience, making the extra effort of building this stage worth the trouble.
At the rehearsal I discovered that the actors had just surrendered their scripts. They were committing their lines to memory — occasionally calling out for a line, but generally well along in the process.
On hand were veterans of the company: Michael McFadden, who plays Jake, and Melanie Calderwood, the mysterious Dyson. Also present, several fresh new faces: Juliette Jones, playing Jake’s daughter Molly; Karin Terry as Lois, Jake’s second wife; and Audrey Herold as Loretta, Jake’s third wife.
Fast forward to opening night, and set designer Jim Thompson’s stage looks fantastic. It’s been transformed from a pile of lumber into a hillside graveyard. This will be the setting throughout More Fun Than Bowling, written by Steven Dietz.
I was pleased to hear that Phoenix would be doing another Dietz play. I really enjoyed their production of his Becky’s New Car. Dietz, who teaches screenwriting, directing and playwriting at the University of Texas Austin, has had his 30-plus plays performed in regional playhouses throughout the country. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I describe him as a comedic genius.
What I loved about Bowling was having the great philosophical questions of life served up to us at the edge of a bowling alley. It’s impossible to take the existential questions of life, love and “the meaning of it all” too seriously as they’re fed to us in a series of bowling analogies. I think my favorite was delivered by McFadden: “Love is an overwhelming thing — it’s like being too drunk to go bowling… it just doesn’t happen that often!”
McFadden is terrific. The play centers around his character and he plays the role with great aplomb. Each cast member carried their weight and each in their turn delivered lines that brought big laughs.
As with Becky’s New Car, you may find trying to predict the outcome of Bowling a fruitless endeavor. Generally unpredictable, Bowling’s narrative jumps around a bit, requiring the audience to pay attention. Laid out over a four-year stretch, with frequent reminiscences to Jake’s earlier life, be assured that all the pieces will come together for the attentive in the end.
As I walked out of the theatre, I noticed that everyone was smiling and chuckling among themselves. I judge the success of a Phoenix play by how amused the audience is. By that measure, Bowling is a strike, a four-bagger, a perfect game. Make it your antidote for February’s gloomy weather.
Friday, Feb. 2 – Sunday, Feb. 25
More Fun Than Bowling
By Steven Dietz
Directed by Eric Lewis
The Phoenix Theatre
2673 Firdale Ave.
(Firdale Shopping Center)
Tickets at www.tptedmonds.org
— By James Spangler