by Kassia Lisinski
Cedar Rapids – I count myself lucky to have had the opportunity to experience SPT Theatre’s first production of their newest season. This season is based on the theme of numbers and opens with the appropriately titled: 1. It’s my first time back at an SPT production in a few years, and I’ve been itching to return since that first show, curious about the art and growth of a company which includes three of my former teachers. And well I waited, for it is a trauma of a unique and delightful sort to witness your one-time instructor dressed in a tight white hoodie, swimming goggles, and prosthetic tail, arms tucked under the spandex, making swimming motions as he imitates a sperm dropping pick-up lines for a sexy anthropomorphization of an unfertilized egg.
I loved the ridiculousness of this show, and I love CSPS for supporting it: for the venue itself—the old wood floors, the post-flood expansion of space, the ceiling tiled in dove-grey mandalas—and for the crowd, a delightful amalgam of cultured New Bo residents and enthusiasts, wine-drinkers, and bespectacled intellectuals. I always feel like this kind of crowd could use a little mess to it, and the raunchiness of SPT’s humor provides. The sheer absurdity of subjects—a school of fish with one daring individual breaking the grapevine dance routine, the endearing guest Nicolette Coiner-Winn’s rampant string of unexpected expletives on a Jeopardy spoof, the dating show complete with a neo-Nazi in search of his beloved fascism (broadcast on US news)—is mind-boggling in its originality and dedication to “no subject too odd to be awesomely produced.” The show comes complete with a full and fantastic band, particularly guest Matt Brooks on soul-enthralling electric blues guitar and founders Gerard Estella’s keys and Jane Pini’s voice.
The energy was apparent as the audience seemed to anticipate the beginning even before the lights dimmed and the actors took their places. The show began with Akwi Nji giving a short definition of the many different meanings of the word “one,” or “won,” or even “wan,” with a relevant quip for each delivered in a few lines by Mary Sullivan and guest Nicolette Coiner-Winn (potentially an overused ploy, but saved by charisma and humor). Following this, the audience was immediately abducted by the band and SPT’s spectacular arrangement of Harry Nilsson’s famous “One,” led by Jane Pini’s beautiful, space-filling vocals. The whole audience was enlivened; the musical assortments which interspersed skits and monologues helped to carry a sense of unity through what could have been a more confusing, disjointed production. However, like a dream in which the scenes change rapidly but maintain a theme of meaning or feeling, so was this performance linked by the prompt of “One,” the music, and the five sequential episodes of “Grant Woody,” in which Sullivan’s Nan and guest David Combs’ Grant Wood part ways and journey through the art world in search of space from each other.
The performance of each and every participant was wonderful, with almost too many highlights to point out. Sullivan’s Nan, with her Fargo accent, startled jumps, and conspicuous huffing her bangs from her face, was especially endearing. Coiner-Winn, Adam Witte, and David Morton also had their stage-stealing moments, and their parts in “Alex Trebek,” “The Search,” “First Among Equals,” “Madame Ovary,” and “School of Fish” are certainly to be anticipated.
Yet, however strong the acting, the real star of the show was the unceasingly unique and engaging writing, particularly evident in the innumerable one-liners provided by the one-sided phone conversation in “First Among Equals” and in the poignancy of “I Would Like to Say,” written by Nji. This latter in particular stuck with me, not least because of its sobriety of topic—ideas of kindness and the universality of religious teachings—in the midst of all the silliness. I found especially memorable the lines, “I believe peace on Earth comes in fleeting moments,” and “…Heaven is bribery, Hell is extortion, and senseless kindness is the only kind that makes sense.” Nji’s writing shone again in her monologue about her young headstrong daughter, who replies to “You can’t go to Monroe, they’re closing the school,” with “Watch me!” Which of course results in on-stage consumption of a quantity of wine (provided by the attendant Witte with a nice bottle of red).
There were few flubs and mistakes throughout the production, although there were several instances of unintended darkness. Most mistakes were, I’m sure, unnoticeable to me, and the rest were covered adequately with ad lib, such as when the wine in the aforementioned skit was spilled a bit and Nji simply proceeded to sip it off her sleeve and glass, no big deal. The one major trip-up came in one of the last musical numbers: I’m not sure exactly what was going on, but the song seemed vocally unrehearsed and more than a little sloppy to begin with. Just as I was becoming concerned that the magic of the production would be ruined, the piece was salvaged and ended strongly, and I envy the audience’s experience tonight.
I am so glad I was able to experience SPT’s production of 1, playing one more night only: September 15 at 8:00 p.m., at CSPS in Cedar Rapids. It was was immensely engaging and, surprisingly, left me with equal doses of giggle-induced endorphins, meditations on meaning, and pride in the talent inherent in the artists of my home region. I look forward to the next show, 2, which opens early in November, and the many future “Tales From the Writers’ Room.” Don’t miss out- make sure to get your tickets and seats early!