Monday, April 14, 2008

Review - Exit Strategy - Cricket Productions - 4 stars

“I have options. Lots of options.”
“Name one.”

Exit Strategy” by local writers Bill Semans and Roy M. Close has one of the funniest first acts on a play that I’ve seen in recent memory - full of one-liners based solidly in character, acted with a great deal of panache. It’s the kind of first act which completely wins you over, endears the characters to you, and makes you wait eagerly for intermission to be over and the second act to begin. For that reason alone, I can highly recommend you see it.

Two more great reasons to see “Exit Strategy” are the performances of Shirley Jean Venard as Mae, and Charles Nolte as James. The prickly but caring relationship between Mae and James is the heart of the play around which everything else revolves. One couldn't ask for a better pair of actors - at any age - to shoulder that load. Venard (72) and Nolte (84?!) go through their paces like actors half their age. And that's the point of the play - "You're never too old. Never." At the outset of “Exit Strategy,” the owners of the Penley, the boarding house where Mae and James live, decide to close the place down within another month's time. The two sparring friends are at a loss to know where to look for a new home. The demise of the Penley is seen as just another signifier that James and Mae's options in general are shrinking in number, and time is running out. But instead of collapsing into despair, they meet the challenge with humor and high spirits. When the opportunity for an actual adventure comes along, one that's a little on the shady side, but might also ease their financial woes, they grab it. They don't leap in without some reservations, but the excitement is too alluring to pass up.

Mae is the live-in caretaker for the Penley, and James is its sole remaining tenant - a former actor and professor who resigned amid scandal. These two characters know how to push one another's buttons and they do so repeatedly, with enthusiasm. Though James is gay and Mae straight, the chemistry between the two indicates an important platonic relationship in both their lives. Venard and Nolte rip into these roles with gusto, wearing them like a second skin, falling into an easy rhythm of conversation both argumentative and supportive. They're an old married couple in all ways but one.

The adventure which comes their way is brought to them by Alex (playwright/actor Semans), an ex-con who may or may not be running a con on Mae and James. He befriends them and acts as referee to their occasional spats. Then Alex lets them in on the real reason he rented a short-term room at the Penley. Alex's caper could bring them all a financial windfall - as long as it goes off without a hitch.

More than just a caper play, “Exit Strategy” is an examination of the later stage of life, when your body may not always cooperate, but your mind and spirit are as lively as ever. The play is awash in memorable lines, from the playful...

"We don't have a rodent problem. All our rodents are quite content."

to the wistful...

"I'd like to fall in love again. I must be out of my mind."

from humor dark...

"I hear a daily nap adds years to your life."
"You sound like that's a good thing."

to bawdy...

"Women over sixty. It's like Tasmania. Everyone knows it's down there somewhere but nobody gives a damn."

from the philosophical...

"I submit that the difference between a brothel and a whorehouse is the presence of a band."

to the gasp-inducing...

"Sometimes I feel like I've sucked my last cock."

(in response to which my friend leaned over to me and said, "So do I, James. So do I.")

There's frank talk, but it's always good talk - grounded in character, shining with intelligence, wit and humanity.

The only real weakness of the script is that in the second act it tends to run out of steam in places. The caper takes a bit of prominence over character. The caper also takes place in another location. Though James Bakkom's setting of the Penley is fantastic - a faded ramshackle abode with telling details in place both onstage and out the windows, down the halls and into the wings - it ain't going anywhere. The actors leave, things happen offstage between scenes, and are later reported to the audience. Though this can, and does, also provide a measure of suspense, it's also less immediate as a storytelling device. Also, at the end of the first act, the trio is on the verge of launching into their adventure. Every entrance in act two, starting with the opening one as the lights come up after intermission, holds the promise that things will kick into high gear. Instead, the execution of the crime is repeatedly delayed - almost as if the play itself is stalling for time. Any time spent with Mae and James is fun, not at all time wasted, but I sometimes found myself wishing they'd get on with it. However, that said, the play ends on a high note - and as long as you end well, the audience will forgive much. In this case, there’s not that much in need of forgiveness.

In a play this dependent on only three characters, all the performers need to be at their best. Bill Semans, thought often charming as Alex, is not yet on the same level in performance as Venard and Nolte. When interacting with either or both of them, their energy feeds him well. When Alex is supposed to be driving the action, sometimes the play falters. Strangely, though Semans is co-author of the script, he is the only one of the three who ever seems to be visibly struggling to remember the lines. Still, it’s early days in the run. As the trio spends more time in front of audience, the bumps will no doubt be smoothed out.

Looking at the larger picture of offerings on stage right now in the Twin Cities, theater could be seen as a young person’s game. On that count alone, “Exit Strategy” is an unique experience. Rather than waiting around for someone else to create a production with the kind of mature leading roles they’d like to see, Cricket Productions went out and did it themselves. Age aside, Venard and Nolte are turning in wonderful performances that deserve to be seen. The first act of the script literally crackles along, it’s a delight - and overall, the story and characters are a lot of fun right to the end. Director Howard Dallin pulls all the elements together well. The set is wonderful. Plus, Lynn Musgrave’s sound design does a great job of setting this fictional locale in the larger present day world, both outside the walls of the Penley and within. And musical interludes are scattered throughout but never overdone. It’s nice work all around. On many levels, theatrical productions like this don’t come along that often. You should see it.

Highly Recommended.

Exit Strategy” from Cricket Productions is performing at the Mixed Blood Theatre (1501 South Fourth Street in Minneapolis) through Sunday, May 4, 2008 - Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $30 ($27 with Fringe button, $25 for seniors and groups, $20 for students). Call the Mixed Blood box office at 612-338-6131 or purchase tickets online at For further information on the production, visit their website at

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