Charming Times at 3

Jason Alberty as Professor Peter Pizzle

by Genevieve Heinrich
photos by James E. Trainor III

Cedar Rapids—”How can you speak about everything, briefly?” This dilemma, raised by Jason Alberty’s pontificating Professor Pizzle, seems uniquely well-suited to 3, the most recent installment of SPT Theatre’s “Tales from the Writer’s Room.” The most obvious answer, of course, is sketch comedy… but as SPT has long realized, that doesn’t *quite* cut it. Pertinent music and some well-placed moments of sincerity are also needed in order to truly approach full coverage. In order to sufficiently untangle what Pizzle refers to as the “dialectic conundrum” of 3, the group calls on every skill in its considerable arsenal, and rises to the challenge.

On the poster for this show, SPT indeed references the “triumvirate of music, comedy and drama”—but what emerged more clearly from last night’s performance was the triarchy of actors, writers, and musicians, weaving their skills together seamlessly while at the same time competing good-naturedly for audience attention. Wonderful moments were created to showcase and savor each. Alberty’s engaging physicality and special guest Matthew James’ ability to pull faces that speak more than a full page of dialogue draw focus to the actors’ contribution. Director Richard Barker’s hand in all this is obvious, especially when pointed attention shifts serve to highlight the clever or beautiful wordplay. The musicians had opportunities to play up their versatility and flexibility, bouncing around stylistically with infectious joy.

The show employs the conceit of an open mic night at a bar. Though they adhere only loosely to that framework (sometimes coming back to it at odd and somewhat unnatural moments), its greatest advantage is that it provides an excuse to have much of the cast on the stage for a large part of the action. The number 3 plays such an important role in crafting comedy, and the potentially risky choice to tell and act out familiar jokes is given credence by the presence and reactions of the other actors. In this way, it was even more self-aware than the typical SPT show, which was fun to see. Also, having a stage that is also an audience for another stage reinforced the 3 levels present in the space (which is toyed with further in a hilarious sketch about the Three Blind Mice that has James stumbling through the house).

Catherine Blades as Goldilocks, David Martino as
the Abstract Concept Three, and Matthew James as
the Big Bad Wolf.

As a confirmed fan of the number 3, it was thrilling to see the creative ways in which it was invoked. SPT found every possible use, from the familiar to the obscure to the mundane. Stand out scenes include special guest Catherine Blades as a hilariously vindictive Goldilocks trying to convince the Big Bad Wolf (James) and the Bridge Troll (a glorious amalgam of Akwi Nji and Jane Pini) to join in her vendetta against 3, the “abstract concept” plaguing each of them, and the show’s closer, a couple of gangsters caught in the age-old debate between “one, two, (go on) three” and “one, two, three, go!” Alberty and Adam Witte unabashedly flaunt their love affair with the English language in this last one, drawing some of the biggest laughs of the evening.

The music, while lacking a bit in thematic application, was powerful and gorgeously rendered. Some early songs seemed like they might have fit better with 2—”Red and Black,” “Man in the Mirror”—and some later pieces felt as though they were almost chosen at random. Still, most of the performances were riveting. Musical guest Garrett Hufford’s reverent delivery managed to justify “Hallelujah” (a fantastic song that is, sadly, all-too-frequently covered), backed by a lovely and an understated arrangement featuring Gerard Estella on guitar and musical guest Dave Nanke on percussion. The band sparkled on “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall,” a piece that seemed to stretch them stylistically in all the right ways. The audience erupted in praise for Estella’s raucous keys on that tune.

There were some balance issues in the vocals on a couple of songs, most notably “Afternoon Delight,” where the harmonies were a bit overpowering. However, many of the blends were exquisite, with Hufford, Doug Elliott, and musical guest Jonathan Dyrland’s “Red and Black” a true stand-out, for its lack of theatricality as much as for their lovely layering. Simplicity was the key of the evening in many ways, from the evocative physical comedy of Alberty, Nji, and James, to the amusing reuse of an elephant nose and other understated props, to the music that always gave exactly enough. The rare misses came in moments where something was played for effect rather than for its own sake.

Many of the skits seemed shorter than the usual, likely due to the jokes, which made for more of them. This didn’t overbalance the music, however, as a glance at the program might indicate. If anything, it allowed for some clever interweaving of song and action that fit well with the overall conceit and gave a certain flow to what can sometimes feel like a stilted mix. These integrated moments allowed the solo pieces to stand out even more, to great effect. Nji’s customary gentle, patient, and almost reticent delivery spotlighted in her story about 3 daughters; the small details of Pini’s performance of “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray,” times when she pulled her voice back where a lesser singer might have pushed: the company was at its best in these moments.

Akwi Nji

It is then that the audience is reminded just what SPT Theatre really is. Those glimpses of intimate virtuosity, along with the opposite end of the spectrum, the company’s grace and humor when flubs do occur, serve to remind that this is, after all, the same group that holds “A Modern Salon” at Brucemore every year. They bring that old salon atmosphere even to this. In a venue like the theater at CSPS, which has hosted benefits, weddings, and national touring acts, SPT still manages to make each audience member feel like they’ve been gathered into a friend’s living room to be serenaded by folks who are getting together for the sheer love of the craft. They perform for themselves and for each other as much as for anyone in the audience, and their passion is invigorating.

Catch SPT’s 3 at one last performance tonight (tickets here) or snag your tickets now for the upcoming 4 or 5, coming in April and June, both also available for sale at the CSPS Legion Arts website.

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