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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Live ‘The Drawer Boy’ brilliant in De Pere

Critic At Large

Birder Players

DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – Classical theatrical masks – comedy and tragedy together. That’s “The Drawer Boy” visualized.

Comedy: A city slicker theater type learns from a farmer what’s needed to “put on a play on farmin’.” The fellow is so naïve the farmer has him believing that he can channel the feelings of cows, that cows eat pigs and that gravel needs washing, pebble by pebble. It’s all funny stuff.

Tragedy: The truth – why the farmer struggles farming day in and day out with a lifelong friend whose memory is frayed in a moment. The friend knows the present, and that’s about it – except for numbers.

“The Drawer Boy” is a modern classic from Canada. Woven into it are sequences from William Shakespeare. Beautifully written by Michael Healey, the play is being presented as if there were a compelling need to do so by Birder Players.

Warren Elliott is the motivator. He has a hand in acting, directing, designing the set and influencing Birder Players to do put musicals aside and take on its first straight play. With him in the prime, prime cast are Parker Drew and Alex Sabin. Together, a lot of performance knowhow is afoot.

Alex Sabin portrays Miles Potter, an idealistic actor in a fringe theater collective in Toronto. The group’s goal is to send members to farms to work hand-in-hand with farmers for a few weeks and then sew together a play from the experiences. Miles happens upon the farm of two aging bachelors, Morgan and Angus. They accept his help, and he takes notes and falls into their saga along the way. (A story involving the real Miles Potter is at the end of this review).

Warren Elliott portrays Morgan, who quickly plays Miles as the fool, filling his head with inane thoughts and chores. On a farm, Miles is miles and miles out of his element, and oh so gullible. To Angus, Morgan is kindly and protective.

Parker Drew portrays Angus, who opens the play in a wordless sequence that speaks volumes that Angus is, as he self-describes later, a “simple fella.” One sequence with Miles tells much about Angus, from his lips when asked what the difference is between hay and straw. “One you eat, one you sleep on. Are you stupid…. I forget which.” When read, that may not mean much, but in context it is an astounding distillation of a character. Parker Drew’s portrayal is pure sensitivity.

Much is subtle in the play and its presentation.

A lead-in song is “Share the Land” (farm reference) by the hit rock band The Guess Who (Canadian).

On the set that includes a realistic creation of a well-worn farm kitchen is stuff found outside in a farmyard. One item is a gasoline can. The play becomes incendiary. The can is not a casual inclusion.

Everything Parker Drew does as Angus is subtle. Angus is slow to move and speak, has a hayseed dialect and can put two and two together – the numbers – but not much else. Parker Drew is infused in being Angus. The fascination of the play is its building of the story to tell why Angus is Angus in a saga from World War II London, two girls (“one tall, one taller”) and an air raid. Back then, Angus was artistic and could draw. He is The Drawer Boy.

Now, of course, there is another story – the fact that the play is being done. In a pre-performance speech, producer Alicia Birder spells out the duress of the theatrical world amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The company’s Broadway Theatre has been adapted to fulfill requirements. On opening night, Wednesday, as many tables and chairs were set out – and widely spread – for the needs of the audience. Ten. Even at full capacity – 35 to 40 – this production tells of a compelling desire of talented people to challenge the tide and express themselves in a lasting story about the power of art.

Warren Elliott performed in the play once before in 2007 with Evergreen Productions of greater Green Bay, and he HAD to leap into it again.

“The Drawer Boy” is that kind of powerful comedy/tragedy.

***

Creative: Playwright – Michael Healey; director – Warren Elliott; lighting design – Jack Rhyner; set design – Warren Elliott; scenic artist – Susan Elliott; stage manager – Jenna Peterson; set build – Warren Elliott, Jack Rhyner; marketing director – Ana Lissa Bakken; producer – Alicia Birder

Cast (in order of appearance)

Angus – Parker Drew

Morgan – Warren Elliott

Miles Potter – Alex Sabin

Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes

Remaining performances: 7 p.m. Oct. 1, 2, 3, 6, 7 and 8

Info: birderonbroadway.org.

***

Coronavirus COVID-19 message from the theater:

“We continue to provide safety measures to ensure both our patrons and performs stay healthy and well during this pandemic. We are doing what we can to ensure our community needs are in order to return to the theatre. As such, we are strictly following the guidelines set forth by the recommendations from the CDC, and the rules being put in place by the various theatrical unions. Because of this, we will be enacting the following measures: 

“Based off CDC recommendations, we will be capping the amount of audience members at one-fourth or less depending on the production and special needs.

“We have removed all audience risers and replaced them with small table/chairs in a unique cabaret seating.

“Seating capacity has been adjusted from 124 seats to 35-40.

“Each ticket purchasing party is seated alone at an individual table.

“We are seating patrons at least six feet apart from others outside their group.

“All patrons are required to wear masks. 

“We provide contactless ticketing. 

“We have enhanced professional deep cleaning procedures before and after showings.

“We have hand sanitizing stations. 

“There are updated exit/entrance flows that minimize contact. 

“We space our actors further upstage from the nearest audience members.”

***

A side story

Miles Potter, a character in “The Drawer Boy,” is based on Miles Potter, a real person. The real person was part of an alternative and experimental theater group that researched a play in 1972 in Canada. The researching part of the story is recounted in “The Drawer Boy,” which the real Miles Potter directed in its premiere in 1999.

Flash forward to 2011. Miles Potter is seated next to his wife, Seana McKenna, at a “Meet the Festival” outreach program of the prestigious Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. The two are introduced as Canadian theater’s “power couple.” Seana McKenna is featured in the title role of William Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” which Miles Potter directs.

What happened is one of my memorable moments in theatergoing.

Seana McKenna is one of Canada’s first-rank theater actors. She explains how she physically prepared herself to represent the disabilities of English King Richard III. She demonstrates how she developed the hobbled gait of the deformed Richard III. She takes off her slip-ons. Barefoot, she strides in figure 8s, noting that others playing Richard injured themselves with special shoes and she has no intention to do so. She also explains how and why she places her left arm on her body and forms a fist to feign deformity.

As director, Miles Potter details the workings of the production with a female Richard and how his wife hungered to portray Richard and how she is like a thoroughbred horse eager to spring from the starting gate.

During a question session, a young woman in the front row signals she wants to say something. The young woman is a mirror image of the Richard III who Seana McKenna portrays.

In an instant, all sound seems sucked out of the theater.

The audience learns the young woman had a stroke 11 years before. Her left arm rests on her body. I had seen the woman at other performances as she walked with a brace on her right lower leg, the leg Richard deals with in Seana McKenna’s performance.

Miles Potter and Seana McKenna sit as if blood has frozen in their veins.

As the young woman starts speaking, registering on Seana McKenna’s face is Red Alert. An actor portraying disability is in danger of offending and insulting people who are differently abled. Will the young woman nail her dead to rights and embarrass her in public over a real or imagined slight?

Speaking in a halting voice, the young woman says she “loves” Seana McKenna’s performance and “loves” how she holds her arm as Richard.

The young woman does have a question, all right, heard by all in the drop-a-pin theater: “Will you autograph my program?”

Seana McKenna stands and quickly walks to the young woman, the audience holding its silence.

Asked to whom the young woman wants the program inscribed, she speaks her name, and then says, “and her loving family.”

At the time, I write, “Theater is so much artifice, illusion, make-believe, pretend, fake, false, fooling, not real reality, misdirection, suspect sentiment, feigned sincerity and deceit, how ever well-meaning. That scene was extraordinary. What happened was the opposite of theatricality. Theater, done well, can move. An action by an actor absent of theatricality can move on another plane and grip hundreds in awe.”

Seana McKenna hugs the young woman and walks back to her seat next to Miles Potter – the guy in the play and in life and witness to real poignance.

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