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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘FrUiTCaKes’ blends warm fuzzies, comedy, meaning in De Pere

Critic At Large

Evergreen Productions

The town handyman/Christmas tree seller (Mark Jackson) makes believe he surprised by an angel (Carly Suda) in a scene from Evergreen Productions’ “FrUiTCaKes.” (Jean Shonkwiler)

DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV)

“FrUiTCaKes” is a play about small-town oddballs around Christmastime… on the surface. Given time – and the play does take its good-natured time – poignant moments surface amid bubbles of humor.

The play becomes a good old-fashioned heart-warmer that’s nicely played by a mixed-age cast in the case of Evergreen Productions of greater Green Bay, notably in the two central characters.

Playwright Julian Wiles, in real life the artistic director of a historic theater, offers to a Northeastern Wisconsin audience a glimpse of South Carolina around Christmas. Mentioned is rain, not snow. Fellows in the play go gun deer hunting, which is way out of season in Wisconsin at Christmas. One performer employs a Carolina accent; others do not.

Mostly, people are into the season in much the same way: They buy Christmas trees. They prepare a presentation with kids doing the Christmas Story. They embrace the importance of the big day in their life.

Two sisters make goodies to eat and drink for the whole town. They’re part of the play’s two-part teasing about fruitcakes. One. The old joke is nobody really likes fruitcakes, which turn into bricks – and yet the sisters make them and give them out by the dozen. (Side note: The fruitcake served at intermission is really tasty). Two. People are called “fruitcakes” for quaint behavior, and the joke in the play is little McCord’s Ferry is loaded with individualistic folks doing their own thing in fruitcake-y ways.

The story: A runaway, having stolen one of the sisters’ fruitcakes, sleeps for the night in the barn of the widowed handyman who sells Christmas trees. The town’s one-and-only policeman is searching for the thief on behalf of the fussy sisters. The audience will see the handyman’s barn used for two versions of the Christmas Story, one in rehearsal before chicken pox sweeps through the kiddie cast and the other by the assorted town “fruitcakes.”

Veteran actor Mark Jackson portrays the handyman, Mack. Ethan Brockman portrays the runaway youth, Jamie. The two present a smooth give-and-take of the bumpy situation of the characters. One can almost sense the guidance of director Ruth Novak in how kindly the man is and how adolescent-resistant the youth is. Very much comes to light in each character’s life that is not fruitcake-y at all.

The major fruitcake-y characters are the sisters, portrayed with engaging straightforward tongue-in-cheek humor by Judy Patefield and Tessie Micke. A joke is the sisters live in separate halves of the same house and only speak at Christmastime because each has a half of the secret fruitcake recipe their mother willed them. Young Jamie gets pulled into their divided kitchen to assist in creating fruitcakes and, later, eggnog – both items containing “vanilla extract” that’s really Jack Daniel’s Whiskey.

Also key and surely played are the policeman Beebo Dantzier (Adam Matthewson, who adds an accent) with an inventive bent; his wife (Megan Carpenter), who often is desperate as she tries to patch together the Christmas Story; and the fishing-happy genius Skeeter (Gary Wisneski), who is on his own life path.

Woven in are a dozen children who introduce the play and then dish out mishaps surrounding the Christmas Story in comical and cute ways. Some of these players are from Evergreen Productions’ Young Actors ranks, and some are new to the stage.

The set and special effects feed some of the aura. With imagination (and abundant toil), sides of the sturdy wood-barn main set fold to become the exterior of the house of the policeman, who has loaded it with Christmas lights. There also is a lawn ornament, a pig, that lights, has a twisty tail that whirls and POOF, smokes when broke.

The production has a lot of giggles and laughs, and on opening night Friday the audience especially keenly listened in silence in telling moments between Mack/Mark Jackson and Jamie/Ethan Brockman.

A runaway (Ethan Brockman) and a Samaritan (Mark Jackson) who has brought him in share a thoughtful moment in Evergreen Productions’ “FrUiTCaKes.” (Jean Shonkwiler)

***

Creative: Playwright – Julian Wiles; director – Ruth Novak; student assistant director – Rose Schumacher; stage manager – Megan Sielski; assistant stage manager – Jason Pries; costume designer – Judy Patefield; hair and make-up designer – Lois Gegare; prop designer – Hayden Barlass; lighting designer – Emilee Mulhern; production coordinator – Sherrill Revolinski; set designers – Mark Lichon, Gary Wisneski; set dresser – Sandy Zochert

Cast:

Mack Morgan – Mark Jackson

Jamie – Ethan Brockman

Beebo Dantzier – Adam Matthewson

Little Beebo – Malachi Oslund

Sally – Carley Suda

Miss Sarah – Judy Patefield

Miss Alice – Tessie Micke

Skeeter – Gary Wisneski

Mattie Sue – Jodi Angeli

Mattie Sue understudy – Kristina Brighum

Rick Morgan – Connor Heimerman

Meredith (Mary) – Isabella Feldt

Sammy (Joseph) – Jacob Brighum

Laura (Sheep) – Mozelle Mandich

Andy (Angel) – Luke K. Deterville

MaryBeth (Angel) – Emma Strong

Joanie (Sheep) – Mariana Mandich

Frances (Narrator) – Kylie Brighum

Little Skeeter (Innkeeper) – Evan Brockman

Little Larry (Wise Man) – Toby Deterville

Little Billy/James (Shepherd/Wise Man) – Dane Oslund

Sooner – Lilie

Later – Ryker

Running time: 2½ hours

Remaining performances: 7 p.m. Dec. 7; 2 p.m. Dec. 8; 7 p.m. Dec. 12-13; 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 14

Info: snc.edu/tickets or evergreentheater.org

***

NEXT: Mainstage: “Arsenic and Old Lace” by Joseph Kesselring, Feb. 14-16, 22-22. Young Actors: “Treasure Island,” musical, Feb. 28-March 1.

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. That was shortly before the Hall of Fine Arts was to be remodeled with a small theater in the plans. Neil Webb had a lot of friends in the community and had the reputation, so his name was used to raise funds for the theater.

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