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Friday, November 08, 2013

Dead Man’s Fest

From the Vault Dept.: In its heyday, the Proctor’s Too experiment in Schenectady offered a worthy season of fringe-like shows to an audience long in need of having its theatrical sensibilities shaken up. The experiment ended long ago; the audience is still in need. Here’s my review of one of the shows. (Theatre Grottesco, by the way, is still going strong.)


THE PROGRAM BOOKLET promised a full-length show with a large cast, but the stagehands could be seen nervously scurrying as the audience settled. Finally, the announcement: all of the cast and scenery had been delayed at O'Hare. The four stagehands would produce the show with a minimum of accoutrements.

Theatre Grottesco:
"The Richest Dead Man Alive"
Those stagehands being, naturally, the entire Theatre Grottesco company, a Detroit-based ensemble that combines mime, dance and circus techniques into a theatrical experience that, as the prologue to The Richest Dead Man Alive suggests, is not going to be your run-of-the-mill play.

What bogged down this production and ultimately proved to undermine the success of the show was the way in which this piece, conceived and written by the four performers, got into too traditional a groove. Terence McNally, for instance, could make a nice door-slammer out of this story of a man misdiagnosed as dead who joins his purported widow in a spending spree of his insurance money.

Which runs out all too soon, so another faked demise must be planned. That kind of absurdity worked splendidly when played at lightning speed by England’s Goons on their 50s-era radio series, but Theatre Grottesco kept the characters a little too sketchy, seeking humor merely in mugging and funny voices. It was reminiscent of one of the less-accomplished Saturday Night Live ensembles.

The strengths of the players themselves should be the group’s focal point, and material should evolve from those strengths. Dead Man is like the Marx Brothers’ movie of Room Service: it’s a good play, and they’re good players – but they should be playing their own, customized material. There was a little too much plot in this play.

Not that it wasn’t without moments of brilliance. A scene in which one character must ply the mazes of officious bureaucracy placed him in an abstractly-drawn office that consisted of a desk and chair whizzing back and forth, commandeered by two of the others – but looking for all the world like any Albany legislative sanctum.

Likewise, the noise and panic of a highway was wonderfully suggested just with head movements and mouth noises, and a traffic accident was created with no props whatsoever. There’s good stuff to be mined in this material.

Was it worth seeing? Absolutely. I’m completely sold on Proctor’s Too, and grateful for the opportunity to see something as unique as this company, even without the imprimatur of “total success” by other area critics.

And if other reviews seemed cantankerously nasty, it’s because those critics have had their expectations raised to an extraordinarily high degree by the Proctor’s Too track record. You’ll never find a Neil Simon play reviewed that way because we know what mediocrity to expect from him. A company like this can take you in any direction – and I’m more than happy to make the trip.

The Richest Dead Man Alive
Created by Theatre Grottesco
Proctor’s Too, May 19

Metroland Magazine, 25 May 1989

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