Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Born Yesterday’ Cast Strikes a Chord in Green Bay

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A big-money guy swoops into Washington, D.C., intent on forcing his sole will onto American institutions forged in the thought behind “We the People…” Harry Brock, a mean junkyard dog of a personality, brings along his bimbo girlfriend, Billie Dawn. For appearances in his power moves, Harry wants to smooth Billie’s rough edges and serious lack of smarts. Harry hires a teacher who happens to be a watchdog journalist, and thus the stage is set for a meaningful and comical American play filled with reminders that the voting booth does count.

Green Bay Community Theater has a humdinger production going of Garson Kanin’s brilliant “Born Yesterday.” Nine more performances remain in the troupe’s Robert Lee Brault Playhouse.

Veteran director Dave Zochert instills in the cast a sense of purpose, and performances hit a rhythm.

Especially creating a feeling of comfort in the skin of their characters are Bill Sergott as the bull-like Harry and Anise Matzke as Billie. Sergott creates an I-am-better-that-you aura to go along with a gale-force voice. Matzke finesses the persona of tarnished woman eager to be polished up, with plenty of humor glittering along the way.

Also tuning in to the direction of their characters are Bob Pekol, the journalist Paul Verrall, who is immediately smitten by Billie and the professor of all important tenets of America; Craig Berken, Brock’s boozy and bought once-distinguished lawyer; Randy Vogels, Brock’s duty-bound cousin; and Brandon Doyle and Nicole Hambly as the Brock-influenced Senator Hedges and his suitable wife.

One more excellent character: The set, which expresses all the elements of being an ornate suite in a lavish Washington, D.C., hotel. It is two levels with gilt all around amid over-the-top flourishes in decoration and finery. There’s even a chandelier above the front lip of the stage. Many people today would balk at paying $235 a night for such a suite – the stated rate. That’s 1946 money. Converting it to today brings the sum to $2,950 (thank you, Internet), which says a lot about the clout of Brock and the kind of hotel room he would command.

This and that:

+ The production says “1946” in various ways. Background house music is of the era. The pacing of the play is of a less time-driven period. Harry drops in lines such as this: “I make more than those Amos and Andy,” a reference to popular radio comedians.

+ Despite the age of the play, there is a sauciness to it. Harry sends up curses that would not be heard in movies of 1946 because of restrictions but would be heard in theater, which was freer. And Billie has a sensuality that surfaces in such one liners as this to Paul Verrall: “What are you, some kind of gigolo?”

+ All sorts of common ground can be found with today’s climate in Washington, D.C. You might imagine someone today saying what Brock says, “You can’t hurt me. All you can do is build me up or shut up.” Or hear a commentator today observing what Paul Verrall does, “(The) original inspiration has been neglected.”

+ A survey by Americans for the Arts found that more than 94 percent of playgoers did one thing: Voted in the 2016 presidential election. That kind of involvement fits right in with the gist of “Born Yesterday,” which stresses the need for vigilance and participation. Not only is “Born Yesterday” a play for playgoers, Green Bay Community Theater does a crackling good job with it.

+ Opening night Thursday included an official tip of the hat to Dave Zochert – more than 40 stage appearances, more than 20 plays as director – for the theater’s Wall of Fame. As a surprise with a family touch, the two sons of Dave and Sandy Zochert drove from distant cities to witness the recognition.

***

Creative: Playwright – Garson Kanin; director – Dave Zochert; assistant director – Dave Burke; set dresser/designer – Sandy Zochert; costume designer – Cyndee Wilson; properties designer – Karen Konshak; hair/make-up designer – Lois A. Gregare;  and sound designer – Peter Wojtowicz; stage manager – Elizabeth Jolly; head carpenter – Noah Villarreal; floor manager – Robert Gagnon

Cast: Billie Dawn – Anise Matzke; Harry Brock – Bill Sergott; Paul Verrall – Bob Pekol; Ed Devery – Craig Berken; Eddie Brock – Randy Vogels; Senator Norval Hedges – Brandon Doyle; Mrs. Hedges – Nicole Hambly; Assistant Hotel Manager and Barber – Robert Gagnon; Helen and Manicurist – Taylore Turney; Bellhop – Eli Sergott; Bellhop and Waiter – Sam Jahnke

Running time: Two hours, 25 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. April 20; 4 and 7:30 p.m. April 21; 7:30 p.m. April 25, 26, 27; 4 and 7:30 p.m. April 28; 2 p.m. April 29

Info: gbcommunitytheater.com

***

THE VENUE: A landmark on Green Bay’s west side, the 193-seat Robert Lee Brault Playhouse features elements of an earlier time as a church, built in 1854 (the current backstage dressing room), 1895 (auditorium) and 1911 (today’s Community Room). The most obvious remnants are the church’s peaked side-wall windows with stained glass that is covered. High-up triangular windows still contain stained glass, and their patterns can be seen playing on sunny days when the troupe has matinees. The auditorium includes a 30 by 23-foot open-end stage with no stage curtain. The troupe has remodeled some portions of the building with medieval touches, but the seating area retains elements of a church. The theater includes wooden arches with decorative geometric designs on the ends and exposed beams in the sharply angled ceiling. The stage front consists of woodwork of repeated arches that looks to be repurposed wainscoting from other parts of the building. The troupe owns the building, which became its home in 1966. The Community Room serves as a gathering space for audiences prior to a performance and at intermission and for board and other internal meetings.

THE PERSON: Larger-than-life personality Robert Lee Brault was a longtime Green Bay Community Theater actor, director, scenic designer and managing director. He and his wife, Rita Brault, were mainstays from the time the troupe performed at various locations through the purchase of the present playhouse. Bob Brault died Nov. 1, 2015, in Florida at age 88.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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