STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – The catalyst for adventure in live professional theater: An international true-life documentary filmmaker is recording meetings of a book club.
That sounds innocuous. But soon excitable folks are letting fly warts and all.
“This book club is like ‘Lord of the Flies’ with wine and dip,” one fellow observes.
Opinions clash, personalities crash and friendships tumble.
A kiss is just a kiss in the movie “Casablanca,” but two spontaneous kisses are powerhouse sensations in “The Book Club Play.”
Those kisses say oh so much in the top caliber Third Avenue PlayWorks production of Karen Zacarías’ smart and snappy play that’s running for three more weeks.
Director Nicole Ricciardi and a keen cast unfold acting/performing/development subtleties like large silver trays of tasty hors d’oeuvres. That’s a fancy way of saying what’s happening is excellent, splendid and A-plus.
“The Book Club Play” is a comedy. Overwrought feelings surrounding books feed into inadvertent disclosures of secrets. Heard in a neat apartment, the shocking little personal outbursts could go on display anywhere in the world.
Some bickering is about literature versus popular culture.
Romance-fed relationships rear their magical, mystical, mystifying head.
High-tone thoughts sometimes fly. One: “A truly cultured person is connected to the culture around him.”
Some thoughts are down-to-earth worrisome. One: “We all keep secrets. What are your secrets?”
The role of racism also surfaces when a Black member learns that it took a vote for her to join the club. “It’s like Affirmative Action for a book club,” Lily says resolutely. It turns out Lily (Saran Bakari) is the most erudite, analytically sharp and level-headed of the group.
The organizer/controller, Ana (Cassandra Bissell, an expert at explosivity), is akin to a high wire act of jumbled nerves and intentions. Perfection is Ana’s golden ring, but her merry-go-round is spinning the wrong way.
Robert (Neil Brookshire), Ana’s husband, is a leaker. Instead of reading the book, Robert watches the movie, if that. His golden ring is someplace yet to be discovered.
Will (Matthew Martinez Hannon), who notes the club was not Ana’s idea but HIS, insists the club hold to a tight standard of what is literature.
Jennifer (Katherine Duffy) gets the revelations going when she describes her top-class scandal with a senator that had the fallout of worst-case dandruff that made headlines.
Alex (Nick Vidal) arrives somewhat uninvited with an heady wheelbarrow stuffed with philosophies, including one that was cracked open when he was dusted off at the altar.
The throes over a multitude of opinions and happenings take place as if just among friends in a living room, but each person is continually reminded the outbursts are being recorded. Their personal disasters become a kind of Cinemascope that the world will see.
The show is a delightful intellectual romp.
Enthusiasm for, or dissing of, famous books are woven into the fabric of action. Prominent are “Moby Dick,” “The Age of Innocence,” “Twilight,” “The Da Vinci Code,” “The Return of Tarzan” and (the fictional, in-the-making) “The Book Club.”
Along with all the actors being team players in the book club tumult, each actor presents a monologue as an entirely different character who is not in the club. Displayed are six cases of acting versatility. One persona is an FBI agent with a penchant for the books of Ernest Hemingway, another a convict with a gimmick for loaning books section by section with the big payoff being a chocolate bar for the ending, and another an elderly librarian about to take a sky-dive jump to live life rather than read a book.
The production hums in a kind of crackling funny way.
This and that:
+ As intense as disputes get at times and as flip as some lines are, “The Book Club Play” contains no cursing. That’s different for many contemporary plays with adult themes.
+ The set and stage area include an impressive array of stacked books of a multitude of sizes and titles.
+ The theater, which had started using a mobile ticketing process for entry, has gone back to paper tickets.
+ Saran Bakari and Ayanna Bria Bakari may have achieved a first in Door County theater history. They are sisters who have performed in separate professional companies. Sunday afternoon, it was on the same day at the same time – Saran Bakari in “The Book Club Play” with Third Avenue PlayWorks and Ayanna Bria Bakari in “The Rainmaker” with Peninsula Players Theatre.
Running time: One hour, 57 minutes
Remaining performances: to July 24 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Creative: Playwright – Karen Zacarías; director – Nicole Ricciardi; stage manager – Casie Morell; scenic design – Scott Wirtz-Olsen; lighting design – Eric Watkinst; costume design – Jazmin Aurora Medina; sound design – Grover Hollway; props master – Jenevieve Lee; managing director – Amy Frank; artistic director – Jacob Janssen
Lily Louise Jackson – Saran Bakari
Ana Smith – Cassandra Bissell
Robert Novum Smith Jr. – Neil Brookshire
Jennifer McClintock – Katherine Duffy
William Lee Nothnagel – Matthew Martinez Hannon
Alex – Nick Vidal
NEXT: “The Last Five Years” by Jason Robert Brown, Aug. 7-Sept. 11.
THE VENUE: Third Avenue PlayWorks, which includes the Steve and Jackie Kane Theatre, is located at 239 N. 3rd Ave. in downtown Sturgeon Bay. The company is in its first full season in the renovated former Third Avenue Playhouse and Studio Theatre. The origins of Third Avenue Playhouse date to 1999. The playhouse previously was a movie theater, the Donna, which opened Nov. 25, 1958. The new auditorium is a “black box” theater at heart – black stage curtains, black walls (mostly), black ceiling – with all new theatrical support elements. On either side of the stage, walls are exposed to brick-and-stone work of original buildings – a historical touch. Architectural style? Black Box Cleaned Up does the trick. A gray, linear-patterned rug leads from the lobby into the auditorium. Seating for 144 is in eight rows on an inclined seating area, with red handrails for the steps and slopes on the sides. Seats are gray plastic structure in legs, back and arms, with seating area of red fabric. The performers use their natural voices with no assist of wireless headset amplification. The lobby areas – multiple spaces with storefront-type windows facing the street – in aura are a blend of art gallery and loft, with some exposed beams and ventilation pipes. One gathering space at present features historical photographs of the downtown. The space near the theater entrance includes photographs from selected previous productions. Nearby is a concession stand. Restroom facilities are greatly improved.