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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ flows comically, cleverly in De Pere

Critic At Large

Evergreen Productions

The Brewster household is in a fine mess for, from left, Abby Brewster (Sandy Zochert), Mortimer Brewster (Brady DeGroot), girlfriend Elaine Harper (Katie Shonkwiler) and Martha Brewster (Myrna Dickinson) in a scene from Evergreen Productions’ “Arsenic and Old Lace” (Jean Shonkwiler)

DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV)

All these years later, playwright Joseph Kesselring can be heard chuckling and laughing as he clickety-clacks at his typewriter creating “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

A couple of sweet old spinster sisters bump off lonely and sad guys with poisoned elderberry wine out of the kindness of their heart.

The neatly dressed sisters are so charming that the cops don’t believe they have 13 bodies in the basement – 12 of theirs and one contributed by a nephew who happens to look like horrormeister Boris Karloff.

Another nephew has an “unfortunate association with the theater” as a newspaper critic. Joseph Kesselring must have gotten some bad notices among his 12 plays because he puts it to hack reviewers with diabolical glee.

Another nephew is one of the indelible characters of comedy plays, being that he believes he is Teddy Roosevelt when he CHARGEs up San Juan Hill as he races up a stairscase, digs the Panama Canal in the basement or enacts official deeds (often secret) as president of the United States.

Directing for Evergreen Productions of greater Green Bay, Craig Berken taps into this fountain of fun with a cast that eagerly drinks of its waters.

The production is entertaining from the get-go. The voice of genteel Martha Brewster is heard in the necessary pre-performance announcements as if she were offering up her recipe for oh-so-delicious quince jam.

Being that the play is from eightysomething years ago, the pacing is casual. The humor is milked in well-developed byplay that keeps pulling the audience along. Verbal and sight gags bubble seemingly at will.

Abby and Martha Brewster savor their life as sisters in a historic section of Brooklyn next to a cemetery and a parsonage where the love of nephew Mortimer’s life resides with her father. Oh, their brother Teddy may get into trouble with neighbors for his blaring bugle blasts that announce another charge to take San Juan Hill, but he’s harmless. And their acts of “charity” helping lonely men to peace is harmless, too – in their way of thinking.

As Abby and Martha, stage veterans Sandy Zochert and Myrna Dickinson, respectively, embrace their classic characters. Their portrayals are so inviting that it is easy to imagine a sad soul enticed to sit at their dining room table, sip tea, nibble on a delicious sweet treat and warm to the thought of their special elderberry wine.

Brady DeGroot portrays nephew Mortimer, the critic, as if he were handed a lighted string of firecrackers. Mortimer’s aunts have so many things going off at practically the same time that he has all he can do to cover their tracks while juggling his job and love life. Brady DeGroot pours on the multitude of reaction bits with energy.

Glenn Sellen leaps into his role as Teddy Brewster, so comically around the bend as Teddy Roosevelt. Along the way, playwright Joseph Kesselring offers an appreciation of the “bully” accomplishments of Teddy Roosevelt, and Sellen brings a sense of enjoyment to role’s many facets.

The play has other big roles.

One is the set, a two-level structure at the rear with five doors and a “CHARGE!” staircase and an expansive living/dining room with a suggestion of a window that opens onto a window seat. That window seat fires up the humor many a time, plus it comes with its own creaky sound effect – an added touch.

Other big roles are people, each digging into his/her character:

Andrew Delaurelle as sinister Jonathan Brewster, now playing deadly cat and mouse with his aunts as he tries to avoid being nabbed by the police.

Jeremy Pelegrin as Jonathan’s put-upon henchman/plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein, whose crummy shoes subtly lead to another joke in the gold mine of jokes in this play.

Katie Shonkwiler as Elaine Harper, a spirited young woman who doesn’t take Mortimer’s sudden weird ways about their engagement without a fight.

Gary Wisneski, as Officer O’Hara, who grabs attention in another of the play’s famous gambits as the play-writing cop describes his play plot to the bound-and-gagged critic.

Also generating at least smiles are Sandra Deterville, Lisa Vecchie and John Abbott as cops and Norm Shonkwiler in a trifecta of roles, including the impetus for the last drop in the waterfall of laughs.

The production in general has a complete feel, with the company treating the material with care and respect for what it is, a comedy evergreen.   

Side note: The original Broadway production included a great casting stunt. The actor portraying Jonathan Brewster, who the people around him in the story say looks like Boris Karloff, WAS Boris Karloff, star of “Frankenstein” and other horror movies.

***

Creative: Playwright – Joseph Kesselring; director – Craig Berken; assistant director – Kathy Schneider; set designer – Nathan Dantoin; set dresser – Patricia Grimm; prop designer – Hayden Barlass; sound designer – Erin Basten; costume designer – Cyndee Wilson; hair and make-up designer – Jackie Ploor; stage manager – Bekah Witte; production coordinator

Cast:

Abby Brewster –Sandy Zochert
Martha Brewster – Myrna Dickinson
Jonathan Brewster – Andrew Delaurelle
Mortimer Brewster – Brady DeGroot
Teddy Brewster – Glenn Sellen
Rev. Dr. Harper – Norm Shonkwiler
Elaine Harper – Katie Shonkwiler
Officer Brophy – Sandra Deterville
Officer Klein – Lisa Vecchie
Officer O’Hara – Gary Wisneski
Lieutenant Rooney – John Abbott
Mr. Gibbs – Norm Shonkwiler
Dr. Einstein – Jeremy Pelegrin
Mr. Witherspoon – Norm Shonkwiler

Running time: Two hours, 50 minutes

Remaining performances: 7 p.m. Feb. 15; 2 p.m. Feb. 16; 7 p.m. Feb. 20-21; 2 and 7 p.m. Feb. 22

Info: snc.edu/tickets and evergreentheater.org

***

NEXT: “Treasure Island” (Young Actors) musical, Feb. 28-March 1. “Cheaper by the Dozen” adapted by Christopher Sergel, May 1-3, 7-9.

THE VENUE: The 184-seat Neil and Mary Webb Memorial Theatre is the smaller of two theaters in St. Norbert College’s Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts. The space has an amphitheater feel with its sloped seating area. The stage is one-of-a-kind thrust stage, meaning it “thrusts” into the audience space. A traditional proscenium stage has a flat front and usually has curtains. A trust stage rarely uses curtains. People in front rows can practically reach out and touch performers when the performers are on the stage lip. Any seat in the theater is close to the action.

THE PEOPLE: Neil and Mary Webb were husband and wife. Neil Webb was president of St. Norbert College from 1973 to 1983. He earlier headed the St. Norbert psychology department. He left academics for a while before becoming president of Dominican College in California. In December 1987, Neil and Mary Webb died in an airplane crash in California in an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee of the airline. That was shortly before the Hall of Fine Arts was to be remodeled with a small theater in the plans. Neil Webb had many friends in the greater Green Bay community and had the reputation, so his name was used to raise funds for the theater.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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