Presented at St. Thomas University’s Black Box Theatre, Buttercup Productions’ And the Lights Go Out and Semi-Sweetheart pair splendidly for an evening of local theatre. The one-act comedies, written and directed by Artistic Director Samuel Crowell, will warm anyone in need of a good thaw after such a long winter.
And the Lights Go Out finds four high school students locked in after a disastrous dress rehearsal of Bye, Bye Birdie. Being locked in wouldn’t be so bad if theatre rivals Bess (Mallory Kelly) and Pepper (Naomi McGowan) weren’t trapped in the same room together. Pepper’s boyfriend Daveth (Peter Boyce) is caught between the two leads while Hannah (Sydney Hallett) grows frustrated with everyone calling her Anna. Moments later, the lights turn off and come back to reveal the students standing in four spotlights (lighting design by Christ Saad), with an ominous countdown appearing on their phones – and Hannah’s watch.
What’s fun about And the Lights Go Out is that the play feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone, only instead of a creature on the airplane’s wing there’s a shadowy figure in the booth. So, imagine the episode Five Characters In Search of An Exit but with the outrageous drama of high school drama. (Oh, the memories.) One by one, the students begin disappearing, time starts to run backwards, and memories begin to fade. And like an episode of The Twilight Zone, there’s a twist at the end: no one was ever trapped, the whole play is Daveth (actually Benji, from the booth) revisiting what was a very special time in his life.
Sure, Crowell’s ending doesn’t quite land, both in the writing and direction, but the main idea still manages to come through. That is, we can’t really appreciate something until it’s gone and then it’s too late.
McGowan has a blast playing Pepper, with all the shouting and big physicality of a character who needs to be the best. Kelly is right there with McGowan, throwing back everything she lobs at her. Hallett quietly steals scenes with her meek, offbeat performance as Hannah. And Boyce brings a lively nervous energy that is fun to watch as his character tries to keep it together.
Crowell manages to keep the play from feeling stale with a sense of anticipation in the movement, which gradually goes from rambunctious to slow and heavy. Same with the writing where the unexplained ramps up to a boil.
In Semi-Sweetheart, Charlotte (Sydney Hallett) visits her dying friend Joan McCloud (Naomi McGowan) in the hospital. The childhood friends look back on their friendship and the significance of Joan’s obsession with chocolate. Joan doesn’t only love chocolate, she lives for it. And sometimes, chocolate gets Joan in trouble. Although Charlotte knows the story differently, Joan’s high school sweetheart Henry (Miguel Roy) cemented the couple’s relationship with a plate of chocolate chip cookies – a gift stolen from Charlotte – for Joan’s birthday. Of course, none of this comes out until all three are adults and in the same room for the first time in many years.
Crowell doesn’t hide the fact that Joan is dying, it’s mentioned right away. So, this isn’t one of those plays that’s out to trick its audience. Everyone is on the same page about Joan. Which is what makes it hard for Charlotte to say what she needs to say. Here’s Joan dying, and then Charlotte wants to set the record straight about something that happened twenty years ago.
Despite its grim premise, Semi-Sweetheart is actually very funny. The friendship between Joan and Charlotte is presented in scenes that depict the two women at different ages. Joan meets Charlotte at the age of seven, then the audience watches Joan’s first communion where Charlotte ruins her white dress with dark chocolate (it’s an acquired taste). As if things couldn’t get worse, the altar crucifix almost falls on top of Joan. Hallett and McGowan are a joy to watch in the scene as their characters (Charlotte shuffles close behind Joan to keep anyone from seeing the chocolate stain) try surviving what ends up being a disaster anyway.
Hallett and McGowan deliver high-energy performances that manage to remain grounded in sincerity. The actors do a great job of portraying the characters at different ages, from carefree children to ‘whatever’ teenagers. Roy brings a tough guy attitude to Henry, a former football player with the game still in his blood. He also plays the Priest and Joan’s father.
Crowell’s minimalist set design has different items from Joan and Charlotte’s friendship placed around the stage. It’s all chocolate-related, of course. Saad’s lighting gives focus to the flashback scenes, taking us in and out of the present with clarity.
One major issue with the production is Crowell’s puzzling choice to include voice-over. Near the end, the voices of two older women play right over Hallett and McGowan’s dialogue. It’s hard to hear clearly, but it’s the same dialogue being spoken. The intended effect is to convince/remind the audience, at the last minute, that these characters are not being played by early 20-something actors. The voices have no presence anywhere else, so they don’t even work as, say, a framing device. Again, whatever dialogue being spoken is hard to hear, so the established mood and pace are really zapped by the voice-over.
Elevated by strong performances, Semi-Sweetheart is a heartfelt comedy that sure knows how to pluck the heartstrings.
Buttercup Productions’ And the Lights Go Out, Semi-Sweetheart ran as a double bill from April 19 – 21 at St. Thomas University’s Black Box Theatre.