Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: UW-Green Bay drama is all about pretend

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Pretend is free. It’s effortless. It just is.

Portraying pretend requires discipline. Concentration. Attention to detail. Creation of an illusion that the pretend is spontaneous.

That’s my takeaway from University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Theatre and Dance’s production of “Play Nice!” by Robin Rice.

The production has the aura of work, as in time spent in preparation and acute study of character, situation and the maze hallways of imagination. The thing vibrates. The four characters are fascinating masses of protoplasm.

Now, the story – or what happens in the time spent in Jean Weidner Theatre of the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts – is that of solving a mystery. Pieces of a puzzle are presented through play-acting by characters. One of the characters can cross dimensions and communicate and physically see another character, who brings another character from imagination to reality to become the solution for a dilemma for the first two characters. “Play Nice!” is pretend on double espresso.

***

Creative: Playwright – Robin Rice; director – Laura Riddle; scenic designer – Jeffrey Paul Entwistle; costume designer – Kaoime E. Malloy; sound and lighting designer – R. Michael Ingraham; technical director – R. Michael Ingraham; assistant technical director – David Cook; stage manager – Erin Pagenkopf

Cast: Isabel Diamond – Emily Ahrens; Luce Diamond – Daniel Taddy; Matilda Diamond – Cherran Dea Rasmovicz; Joanie Calliope – Kate Kakerboom.

Running time: 95 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22

Info: weidnercenter.com

***

“Play Nice!” is a one of a kind. The play is fairly fresh to the world, having been published in 2015 and demonstrates Robin Rice as being a whiz-bang writer.

Action starts with a 12-year-old girl and her high-school age brother playing pretend in an attic. Isabel fashions poetry in her make believing. She and her brother, Luce, are wired similarly, and Luce can tune in on Isabel’s fanciful wavelengths. Luce is looking forward to performing as part of his school’s flag unit (he’s the only boy) that is marching in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade the next day. It’s a short scene.

The rest of the play happens the day after Thanksgiving. Something has happened. Many things have happened. The “something” is the mother of Isabel, Luce and their older sister, Matilda, is in the hospital, having imbibed rat poison. The “many things” are interplay with the mother and her children. Isabel sets out to piece things together. The children end up play-acting, including each being the mother as the play progresses. The mother is never seen. Her children fill in her picture/personality: Obese. Lofty. Socially driven. Appearance driven. Sweets driven. Demanding. Controlling. Each child adds elements to create a portrait of an outsized woman of preposterously pretentious pomposity who eats piggishly.

Naturally, a setup like that requires an unusual set. And so it is in the backdrop of a huge spider web-like structure that’s approximately 25 feet across and tilted toward the audience. Rather than silk, this web has the appearance of being metallic for most of its interlacing, with this major exception: Some threads of the set’s web have elasticity; Isabel takes one such element, stretches it from up high to a bracing box on the floor and splits the long “thread” so she can step into another dimension to meet Luce. How’s that for scenic design imagination in a play about imagination? Pretty darn good, I’d say.

Guided keenly by director Laura Riddle, the actors have their juices flowing for this elaborate, fancifried (fantasy, deep fried), loopy-smart concoction that picks on the supercilious rich.

Isabel is the catalyst character, and Emily Ahrens attacks the role of a flighty, pretend-loving girl who absorbs everything around her as a budding genius. Daniel Taddy creates a fragile, searching brother. Cherran Dea Rasmovicz plays the sister caught on hooks of responsibility. As Ahrens, Rasmovicz and Taddy, respectively, pretend to be the mother – same dress, same voice, same haughty demeanor – their acting juices get juicier and even more colorful. Kate Akerboom embodies the role of a street urchin type, raggedy and rugged and poetic.

What I like about the play is it goes into recesses of the mind where anything goes.

NEXT: “Searching for Romeo,” Nov. 17-19.

VENUE: The 99-seat Jean Weidner Theatre is a fully outfitted black-box space (no adornments; focus on the stage). It primarily is set up as a variation of a thrust stage, with seating on three sides. In the front row, where I sat for “Crimes of the Heart,” my feet could touch the lip of the performance floor. At times, I could have reached out and touched a performer. Intimate? You bet. The space demands the actors be focused on the stage, despite being surrounded by prying eyes. The theater is the smallest of three contained in the Edward W. Weidner Center for the Performing Arts.

THE PERSON: Jean Weidner was a psychotherapist and wife of Edward Weidner, founding chancellor of UWGB. The Weidners had four children. Jean Weidner died in 1997. A memorial service was held for her on the stage of the Weidner Center’s main stage amid spectacular set pieces of a touring production of “The Phantom of the Opera.”

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

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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