Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: A dynamic night in Fond du Lac

‘When They Speak of Rita'

FOND DU LAC, Wis. - Outside Prairie Theatre at the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac is a display of themed posters. The topics are divorce, emotional abuse, stress, depression, teenage pregnancy, affairs, communication and traditional/nontraditional families. The entire range is covered in “When They Speak of Rita,” a drama by Daisy Foote that the campus Theater Department is presenting in four more performances through Sunday, March 12.

Friday night’s opening performance was particularly interesting to be a part of for its harmonic convergences, which I will lace together here:

+ UW-Fond du Lac is a two-year campus.

+ Friday’s performance was well attended, with a vast majority of attendees being students.

+ Two of the catalytic characters in the play are 19 years old – the age of many in the audience.

+ Many of the students were attending as part of class studies bred by something special UW-Fond du Lac has going, the Theater Interdisciplinary Program. In short, theater is a springboard for curriculum engagement in classes for English, communication arts, women’s studies, sociology, psychology, art and theater.

+ “When They Speak of Rita” provides many roads in for examination on all the teaching/learning areas, and it does so while being a piece of entertainment.

+ Students may have HAD to attend as a requirement and ended up being fully engaged by the play and the performance. I can tell when audiences are “gone” – fully absorbed. With its long, dead silence at the dramatic climax, Friday’s audience was indeed gone. The audience also was engaged along the way in different ways. The play keeps dropping bombs that I won’t give away that caused Friday’s audience to be reactive.

+ Altogether, it was an evening of theater running on all cylinders.

At the core of “When They Speak of Rita” is Rita, a wife and mother in rural New Hampshire. (New Hampshire being akin to Wisconsin in weather and ruralities is another resonating point for an area audience). Rita is a great cook. As the play opens, she has just done a catering job (for which she was vastly underpaid) and has begun dreaming of starting a catering business. The audience eventually learns that Rita has had a series of wannabe ventures, so her husband and son are less than lukewarm about this new thing.

The play seems mundane as it covers little nagging things among this small family. And then playwright Foote shoots off a little firecracker – a quick visual display by one of the characters that something salacious is going on. (Boy, did Friday’s audience perk up when it saw the brilliant burst of body English).

There was churn in the audience at other parts of the play, and the cast held focus through the audience reactions. Director Richard Gustin of the Theater Department instilled in his primarily student players the discipline needed to glide past such speed bumps. In many ways, the players stay the course in telling the story.

Sarah Lally (an alum) portrays Rita, who just can’t seem to connect with satisfaction in life. Jess Keihl portrays Rita’s husband, Asa, a foreshortened version of a tower of strength. Max Kroll, portrays Rita and Asa’s son, Warren, 19, a natural can-do person. Joseph Weidmeyer portrays Warren’s friend, Jimmy, who likes being part of this household away from his vitriolic parents. Alysa Mies portrays Warren’s girlfriend, Jeannie, whose bundle of things going on include an internal debate about whether to go to college on the scholarship she earned.

Playwright Foote deals with regular folks in a regular town. Along the way, she plants landmines both large and small for her five people. In the end, Foote leaves the audience knowing a bit more about what people might think when they speak of Rita.

It is an excellent play for a campus that has a smart idea for involvement – and one of learning for any adult audience.

The involvement includes “When They Speak of Rita Large Group Interdisciplinary Discussion” taking place from 12:30 to 1:20 p.m. today, Thursday, March 9. The event is to include participation by Daisy Foote by way of Skype – the audio-visual connective thingie that allows long-distance, back-and-forth involvement. Students and faculty can connect directly with the playwright about her play. Sounds interesting.

***

Creative: Playwright – Daisy Foote; director/producer – Richard Gustin; technical director – Bruce Towell; light design – Andy Sehloff, Mason Milus; costumes – Nichole Reno; sound design – Mason Melius, Kylee Brabant; stage managers – Kylee Brabant, MaKenzie Bauman

Cast: Rita – Sarah Lally; Asa – Jess Kiehl; Warren – Max Kroll; Jimmy – Joseph Wiedmeyer; Jeannie – Alysa Mies

Running time: One hour, 35 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. March 9, 10, 11; 2 p.m. March 12

Info: fdl.uwc.edu

***

THE VENUE: Prairie Theater is a 340-seat theater in University Center of the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac. Distinctive trait for audience members: Especially spacious seating area, with much leg room. The performance space is wide, with a proscenium (flat-front) with a dark stage curtain and slightly bowed space of approximately 12 feet reaching toward the audience. The performance space is approximately four feet above the seating area, with another rise of about two feet for some settings for “Leviathan.” The seats are of rose taupe fabric with a geometric pattern, with the backs being plastic and the arms wood. The floor is poured cement, with four aisles carpeted. The ceiling is a configuration of dark, rectangular acoustical clouds. The side walls feature tan quarried stone in approximately 15-inch squares for the first 12 or so feet up, leading to six wooden rectangles and three large, tan areas above that framed in wood. Behind the side walls are ramped hallways that lead to alcoves on either side of the main seating area that look like porches, including metal railings and two seats. On the alcove walls are more large tiles that look to be for acoustical purposes. The theater is lighted dimly. Outside the theater is a large commons area that is part of the University Center building.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays.


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