Theatre in the Round Players (TRP) is having one hell of a season, perhaps their best since I’ve been a regular attendee. The Book Club Play is definitely in the conversation for the best production I’ve seen by the company. The position is currently held by Red Herring way back in 2017, but this is giving that show a run for its money. Containing all the elements you might look for in a good book; drama, comedy, social commentary, romance, The Book Club Play touches on all the qualities of the books it’s characters read. But above all, it’s a comedy, one that draws much of it’s humor from the best possible well that of character. The play is written by Karen Zacarias, whose ability to create characters that can be summed up as a type, but then refuse to be simply that character tagline. This is my first exposure to Zacharias’s work, and excited that another of her plays Native Gardens is going to be produced next month at DalekoArts in New Prague. This is the sort of play that I like to recommend for couples who don’t get out to the theater often or as a great night out with a group of friends. TRP tickets are very affordable and there is no way you’re not going to leave the theatre saying “we should go to the theater more often that was really fun!”
The basic plot is, “Ana is a Type A personality who lives in a letter-perfect world with an adoring husband, the perfect job, and her greatest passion: Book Club. But when her cherished group becomes the focus of a documentary film, their intimate discussions about life and literature take a turn for the hilarious in front of the inescapable camera lens. Add a provocative new member along with some surprising new book titles, and these six friends are bound for pandemonium.”From the Theatre in the Round Website
That’s basically all you need to know of the plot because the humor and heart of the play comes from the characters and their relationships. TRP has gathered a very talented group of actors who know how to bring Zacarias complex characters to life, always avoiding making them into caricatures. Probably the easiest example to illustrate what I mean is Ben Tallen as Rob, Ana’s husband. He plays what in the shortest description would read like a dumb jock trophy husband. But he isn’t written that way, but the aspects that are, Tallen plays against making his character more real by subverting the expectation. Siri Hellerman plays Ana, the most uptight character, she has to fall apart as the others find themselves. She could have come across as a very unlikeable character but again, Hellerman plays the unattractive elements in a way that we empathize way more than we think we would. Rachel Postle gives a very naturalistic performance as Jennifer, an old friend and longtime member of the book club, who isn’t too thrilled with having cameras recording her book club nights. Eni Ogundipe is not someone we’ve seen before, she plays Lily, the young new to town, and recent addition to the book club. Ogundipe is a little green performance wise, but she definitely has a quality that captures the audience’s attention. She’s the young, hip, but very smart woman who tries to shake up the book club a little bit with her off message book choice. Tony Burton plays Will, who is Rob’s best friend, Ana’s first love and whom Lily assumes is gay. He plays Will perfectly so that we have made the same assumption Lily has, but he doesn’t overplay it so much that we can’t believe his denials. It’s a tricky line to walk, for the humor and the character to work, you have to play with some stereotypes, but you don’t want to overplay it and end up playing a stereotype but Burton masters the balancing act. Finally, in between each meeting of the Book Club we get Bailey J. Hess, playing different characters doing a little comedic bit about books. It’s the kind of fun character work we used to see at TRP from Mark L. Mattison. It’s a little palate cleanser between scenes and they all work really well.
The Production is directed by Shanan Custer, a Twin Cities favorite who stopped needing to prove anything long ago. A gifted performer she is also a sure hand at the helm of a production. The timing and staging of the play has her wit written all over it. Not content with a fantastic script, it’s her influence I suspect that guided the actors to making those choices that expand the reality of their characters. One flaw of the show was some of the sound design work by Scott Gilbert. As scenes begin there is an audio announcement of the book and author for that weeks meeting. Frequently, they are too soft to be heard or come on too soon and are drowned out by the audience applause for the previous bit by Hess in one of her unique character creations. Perhaps that will smooth out as the run continues and they have a better sense of the audience reactions. Greg Vanselow’s Set Design is basically some living room furniture, the one neat creation are the four large camera boxes stationed in the four corners of the living room which the actors have fun either talking to or trying to avoid looking into.
The Book Club Play runs through February 19th at Theatre in the Round Players in Minneapolis, for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.theatreintheround.org/home/season-placeholder/current_season/book-club/ . This one comes very highly recommended!
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