DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – After two years of incarceration because of COVID-19, one-of-a-kind Cardboard Theatre is back in action with a new, original play loaded with whimsy.

“Deadly Games at the Hotel Excelsior” had its merry premiere Friday night at ComedyCity Theatre, where improvisational theater rules and camp is king.

Cardboard Theatre suits a definition of camp: Adopting a teasing theatrical manner, especially for the amusement of others.

The cardboard part is just for starters. Set pieces and props are made from cardboard.

A chessboard full of pieces? All cardboard.

A knife in a back? Cardboard.

A telephone? Cardboard.

A serving plate with cheese and chocolates? All cardboard.

A wall with a sliding “elevator” door in it? Cardboard.

Five pistols, each a different type? All cardboard.

Maggie Dernehl’s prop telephone and radio. (Warren Gerds)

For “Deadly Games at the Hotel Excelsior,” the story? Not cardboard but with connections to improv, which is a kind of cardboard theater. It’s funny, but it doesn’t last forever… unless someone writes a script with a plot and characters with lines to follow. Someone like Jim Reilly.

Drawing on his improv roots of making up characters and situations on the spot, Jim Reilly created a tongue-in-cheek take on 1940s noir movies with intrigue, sinister deeds, inuendo and deadly doings, though with a light touch. The intrigue is just another way to get to the next joke (no swear words among them) or sendup of stereotypical characters from the Cold War.

It’s France, after World War II. Hotel Excelsior, which has seen better days, is a gathering spot Jim Reilly’s typecasting of shifty sorts. Everybody has an accent:

+ The eager-to-please front desk clerk, Frenchie (Ken Goltz), always with his hand out for the sale of information.

+ A mysterious resident, Lloyd Sidwell (Jerah Doxtater), who on the surface is masterminding a plan for improvements for the hotel. But that’s a front.

+ Ivan (Gary Radke), Lloyd Sidwell’s “employee” with a Russian accent whose main job is to shadow the next guy:

+ Gunter (Rob Czypinski), the uniformed elevator operator with a brusque air, a German accent and all sorts of signals of trouble.

+ A blowhard British officer, The Major (Will Knaapen), with a know-it-all ego.

+ His well-appointed wife(?), Lady Melbourne (Maggie Monte), with an upper-crust loft to her speech.

+ The Weasel (Logan Madson), a nervous and sweaty sort – think Peter Lorre – with a mysterious package.

+ A medium, Madam Zolar (Terry Minor), who conjures a séance and another level of mysteriousness and mirth. The standing joke is a thunderclap accompanies every mention of her name “Zolar” = Ka-boom!

+ And, the catalyst character, Al Smith (Jon Bruinooge), a well-worn, tough-talking, language-wrecking American detective on a mission to get to the bottom why his partner got killed (or the way he says it, “kilt”) by muscling information out of everybody.

This is a zany brew with quips galore.

Director Mike Eserkaln knows how to inspire and finesse fun. His experienced cast knows how to zone in on playfulness.

Maggie Dernehl’s cardboard creations speak of imagination and hours of patience with her special props and backdrops that, after all, are part of Cardboard Theatre’s reason to be.

The story that seems to be held together with string is talky, but it is improv talk that’s setting up another joke, another play on words, another comical situation and, of course, more laughs from the audience.

And the best thing is all this imagination and performance joy comes from right here. Right here.


Running time: One hour, 15 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. April 2; 2 p.m. April 3; 7:30 p.m. April 8-9


Creative: Playwright – Jim Reilly; director and tech – Mike Eserkaln; cardboard creations and production – Maggie Dernehl

Cast (in order of appearance):

Frenchie – Ken Goltz

Lloyd Sidwell – Jerah Doxtater

Gunter – Rob Czypinski

Ivan – Gary Radke

Madam Zolar (Ka-boom!) – Terry Minor

The Major – Will Knaapen

The Weasel – Logan Madson

Al Smith – Jon Bruinooge

Lady Melbourne – Maggie Monte


Basic setup for “Deadly Games at the Hotel Excelsior.” (Warren Gerds)

THE VENUE: ComedyCity Theatre (the former Green Room Lounge) is located at 365 Main Ave. in downtown De Pere. The building is part of a historic district in De Pere. The performance area for ComedyCity and this show is in the north part of the address. The space has an urban loft feel – a bare brick wall to the east, greenish painted wall to the west, a rough-wood wall to the south with panels angled at 45 degrees, and with exposed ventilation pipes and open wood ceiling above. Seating on chairs – stand-alone or at tables (like sturdy barrel bottoms) – is flexible and for approximately 60 for “Deadly Games at the Hotel Excelsior.” The stage is raised a foot or so and tidily placed in the southeast corner.