Performance Network offers a great view of "Mars"
photo courtesy of Performance Network
But what we don’t know is how we might have responded if we were among those who thought the world was about to end — a topic explored, in ways both comical and dramatic, in Joseph Zettelmaier’s “It Came From Mars,” now having its world premiere at Performance Network.
The folks involved are a second-rate company of radio performers who’ve gathered to rehearse a new show: pompous director/writer Quentin (Wayne David Parker); oafish lead actor George (Joey Albright); ditzy party-girl ingenue Delores (Alysia Kolascz); and sound effects technician Werner (Jacob Hodgson). Wrangling them all is Maude (Morgan Chard), an underappreciated receptionist who’s sent to persuade Quentin’s ex-wife, Julia (Sandra Birch), to come fill in for the company’s lead actress at the last minute. But the assembled group doesn’t get too far into Quentin’s script when they hear a portion of Welles’ broadcast and, well, freak out.
While the setup may sound like the stuff of farce, “Mars” is more aptly described as a smart comedy with some dramatic moments. In fact, the production’s most farcical scene is its weakest, coming near the close of the first act. Two separate arguments break out simultaneously between two character pairs (Julia and Quentin on one side, George and Werner on the other); the unnatural, self-conscious cadence of their exchanges — timed so we can hear everything that’s said — as well as the slow wind-up into physically comproming positions pulled me out of the story, so that I was suddenly hyper-aware of actors acting and executing choreography.
Yet the reason this unnecessary detour into slapstick sticks out is because Zettelmaier’s generally tight, focused script is otherwise packed with witty moments and lines that work far more effectively. Plus, director Tony Caselli and his dream-team cast find comic potential in even the simplest lines (like Birch’s hilariously droll delivery of, “Perhaps this little biscuit could do the role,” referring to Kolascz).
All the actors are outstanding, but Hodgson, playing a young German immigrant in a time when Germans were viewed with suspicion, often threatens to steal the show — particularly during the second act, when fear causes Werner to act on his feelings for Delores.
Chard, meanwhile, is pitch-perfect as the company’s voice of reason, while Birch uses her larger-than-life charisma to make Julia a fierce force of nature. Albright oozes blowhard bluster (and later, paranoia) with conviction, and Kolascz — who more than delivers on hysterical comedic moments with Hodgson — skillfully, subtly hints from the start that there’s more to Delores than meets the eye. Finally, Parker, as the height-sensitive artist with delusions of grandeur, conveys his character’s more vulnerable side when Quentin and Julia finally have a heart-to-heart.
This, like all the other moments in “Mars,” happen in a thrust stage configuration, so the actors are only feet away from the audience. Caselli cashes in on this close intimacy so that the audience feeds off the energy, fear, excitement and chaos experienced by the characters, and he also manages to use a small space efficiently, so that it never feels like too tight a squeeze.
The backdrop’s designer is Janine Woods Thoma, who offers a nicely realized take on a 1930s radio station rehearsal room. Sally L. Converse-Doucette’s muted-palette costumes stylistically reflect character, era, and the national mood during the Great Depression, with few-to-no bright colors except for Delores’ red coat, which we see near the play’s end. And Charlie Sutherland’s props — particularly Werner’s tools of the trade — complete the illusion of being immersed in the past.
Yes, I enjoyed the play’s second act more than the first — the exposition’s done with at that point, of course, and the characters are all reacting to Welles’ broadcast, which is the real meat of the matter — but overall, I laughed often and found much to enjoy throughout “Mars.”
I wondered, too, where Zettelmaier, who seems to get better with each play, might take us next.
Jenn McKee is the entertainment digital journalist for AnnArbor.com. Reach her at email@example.com or 734-623-2546, and follow her on Twitter @jennmckee.
Mon, Mar 1, 2010 : 8:31 a.m.
Another review for your readers to check out: http://mientertainment.biz/content/2010/2/28/it-came-from-mars-delightful-fun.html Some choice quotes from this review: "A clever play making the rounds in Michigan right now is It Came from Mars." "The cast is a wonderful ensemble." "Hats off to director Tony Casselli for unifying this cast into one likeable bunch of oddballs, and I would be remiss if I did not mention the technical people from behind the scenes who make the magic work. In this show there is a clever art deco 30s set, with perfect lighting, sound, and costumes to take you back to a time long ago." "Grab a ticket and get ready to have lots of lighthearted fun." I encourage you to keep supporting local professional theatre! Thanks, David Wolber Artistic Director Performance Network Theatre
Sun, Feb 28, 2010 : 9:59 p.m.
A2 lover - I am confused, because I saw this play last weekend and I thought it was very funny, and Ms. Birch was very funny, too. I don't know what other plays Mr. Zetellmaier has done, but in looking at some of your previous posts it seems that you don't ever have anything good to say about Performance Network, or the U of M, or Jenn McKee's reviews. I wonder, is there any theater you DO like? David Wolber - thank you for the link to the EncoreMichigan website. It is a fun site and has lots of theatre information. I have just moved back to the area, but am interested in seeing more good theatre now that I can afford it! By the way, I really enjoyed the show and am thinking about buying a season package. Thanks for the opportunity.
Sun, Feb 28, 2010 : 7:39 p.m.
I find it inappropriate that David Wolber, Artistic Director of the Performance Network, responds to the review and comments herein such a self serving way on AnnArbor.com. First the husband of the Executive Director, and sometime actor a Performance Network, feels obligated to respond to somewhat negative comments regarding K2, now Mr. Wolber weighs in, even quoting another review! How professional, or unprofessional, are they at PN? Or is it a case of "the lady doth protest too much", desperate to justify their existence, knowing that PN is on the cusk of real professional quality theatre.
Sun, Feb 28, 2010 : 2:53 p.m.
Thanks for the review Jenn - glad you enjoyed the show. Audiences are laughing and responding incredibly well to this world premiere. It's always a thrill for us to produce new work, and this one is being received incredibly well. Thought I'd point your readers to another review of IT CAME FROM MARS as well: http://www.encoremichigan.com/article.html?article=2681 a few choice quotes from it: "it's been fun watching the Washtenaw County-based Zettelmaier mature and sharpen his already considerable skills with new scripts that are always fresh and engaging. And Mars is without doubt his best effort yet - matched by superb direction by Tony Caselli and perfectly-tuned performances by a stellar cast. " and "Sandra Birch makes a memorable entrance as the ex-wife, Julia Crane, and never slows down. A master at conveying the true meaning behind her words with but a slight raise of an eyebrow, Birch has great fun challenging Farlowe's authority - and even makes eating a piece of candy quite entertaining!" Thanks for supporting Performance Network. See you at the theatre!
Sun, Feb 28, 2010 : 11:20 a.m.
Thoroughly enjoyed this performance. I'm continually impressed by the consistent quality theater available in this "town" of 100,000 people. As for the "review" from A2lover, I find it amusing (and a little sad) that an apparently failed or frustrated critic takes him/herself so seriously.
Sat, Feb 27, 2010 : 12:19 p.m.
This is not Mr. Zettelmaier's best work here. And, what with Ms. Birch providing her usual abrasive, scenery chewing acting, the play gets even less of a chance to succeed. However, it's nice to see Mr. Parker provide more range the the usual Escanaba performance. Plus, Ms. McKee is right, the dual arguments section of the play is clumsy and clumsily staged, and Mr. Hodgson's does give a pitch perfect performance. The show is worth seeing though for some nuanced characterizations and some very witticisms and moments.