Sunday, April 09, 2017

Review - Lone Star Spirits - Jungle Theater - Big Laughs In A Small Town - 5 stars

As the lights came up after curtain call at the end of the show, the guy next to me leaned over and asked, “Do you mind my asking why you were taking notes during the show?”
“I write theater reviews for an online blog. I can’t trust my memory to hang on to all the details sometimes.”
“What did you think?”
(Part of me was thinking, “Dude, we just sat through the same play, why do you need my instant review?” I also couldn’t believe I’d just said “online blog” - where else would a blog be?  But…)
“I don’t normally laugh out loud much, but I laughed at this quite a bit.  It’s a good show.”
That seemed to satisfy him.  I seemed to have reinforced his own opinion, so off he went.

“Am I happy? What the hell kind of question is that?”

Another good sign early on was that the guy on the other side of me started the evening as the lights went down with a nervous twitch in his leg so acute that it was jiggling the entire row of seats I was sharing with him, my seat most of all.  Probably also his wife’s seat on the other side of  him.  He’d clearly been brought to the theater against his will, and was waiting for the exposition to be over and the story to start.  He, too, quickly started to enjoy himself, and his twitchy leg relaxed and stopped trying to rearrange the furniture.

“This town is evaporating and you’re the last of the fish, flopping around in the mud.”

Such are the considerable charms of Josh Tobiessen’s one-act comedy Lone Star Spirits, currently in production over at the Jungle Theater under the direction of Sarah Rasmussen.  It’s theater even dudes can enjoy.  It probably doesn’t hurt that, in addition to being extremely funny, Lone Star Spirits is set in a liquor store of the same name.  Set designer Sarah Bahr’s small town Texas liquor store (with ample help from John Novak’s quirky properties work) is so realistic and homey-looking that the audience is invited during pre-show to come up on stage and order themselves a drink if they wish.  One uncertain audience member feared his friends were playing a trick on him, but was delighted to find he could indeed get a beer before the show.

“And that’s all you’re saying about the necktie?”
“If that’s all you’re saying about the hat.”

But hey, what’s the play about, you ask? Walter (Terry Hempleman) runs the liquor store Lone Star Spirits, and he, the store, and the town have all unfortunately seen better days.  Walter’s just been to see the doctor, so that’s never a good sign.  Walter hasn’t seen his adult daughter Marley (Thallis Santesteban) in quite some time.  Neither has her old high school boyfriend Drew (Nate Cheeseman), still living in the same town, trying to recapture a bit of his former glory on the football field.  Rumor has it, and rumor is correct, that Marley’s coming home for a visit.  When she appears, she has a brand new fiance in tow, Ben (John Catron).  Ben’s the sort of upwardly mobile modern man who has a Pavlovian response to every beep and vibration from his cell phone.  He’s launched an online business (because of course he has), and has cultivated the kind of carefully groomed stubble that inclines you to hate his pretty face on sight.  The only other regular customer Walter has is Jessica (Christian Bardin), someone else who went to school with Marley and Drew who never left town.  She’s a Gulf War widow raising a young son on her own, still managing to convince herself that booze, sex and drugs are fun.

“Are you alive or dead? Pick a side, I always say.”

That makes them all sound like a lot less fun than they are.  Sure, everyone is equally clueless in their own way about the lives everyone else around them leads.  But they mean well.  Lone Star Spirits as a realistic drama might be a bit depressing, but as a comedy, it’s hilarious.  The relationships are all still very grounded in reality, and that reality is often awkward - estranged father/daughter, old friends, new fiances.  But the awkward is mined for plentiful laughs.  The situations of the play are also grounded in our increasingly polarized times - big city vs. small town, the haves and have nots, the current cultural landscape of income inequality and lack of opportunity.  Again, rather than angst-ridden shouting matches, the results of delving into these schisms is a lot of generous humor.

“Things from a simpler time.”
“Before women could vote?”

Tobiessen’s script is built like a Swiss watch and Rasmussen directs the play at a steady clip, getting the whole ensemble playing off one another in rotating combinations that just keep ratcheting up the pace and the stakes.  They also pull off some delightful fake-outs on the audience that I won’t spoil here.  Suffice it to say that sentiment is never too far removed from a punch line, and even guns going off can provide amusement in the proper context.  The whole cast is having a hell of a good time playing around in this world, and the audience is right there with them.

“I just needed to play a game I could win.”

Lone Star Spirits is also partly a ghost story, since the liquor store was also once the home of the founder of the town, Henry.  Every drink is also a toast to Henry, to invoke his good will.  The ghost of Henry was a father/daughter bonding moment for Walter and Marley as well.  The play never quite abandons the possibility of old Henry’s spirit, and Barry Browning’s lighting and Sean Healy’s sound design help reinforce the occasional otherwordliness of it all.

“There’s no such thing as a haunted hammer.  Sit down!”

It always surprises me when I find myself thinking “Well, it’s a comedy.  It’s really good, but can I honestly give it five stars.  I mean, it’s a comedy.”  I write comedies, too.  What part of my brain is secretly anti-laughter?  Comedy is an important tool in a writer’s toolbox.  You can often communicate and connect more effectively by making someone laugh than by trying to lecture them.  Laughter is just as genuine an emotional response as crying.  And we’ve got enough to cry about and not nearly enough to laugh about in the world.  Comedians and comedy writers need to help balance the scales and cheer us the heck up a little.

“I was scared, and she had a plan.”

Too often after seeing a play lately I’ve been at a loss for the answer to the simple question, “Why is this theater telling this story in this way right now?”  Before I saw Lone Star Spirits, the same question nagged me about the Jungle.  Now that I’ve seen Lone Star Spirits, I could rattle off a dozen reasons, which makes me very happy, and is an enormous relief (don’t worry, I won’t enumerate all of them).  For starters, the play had me scribbling down more good lines of dialogue than I can squeeze between paragraphs of this review, which is always a good sign (it kills me to leave some of them out.)

“You swept the floors for the first time since Christmas.  You’ve got three air fresheners plugged into one outlet.”

Lone Star Spirits is a telling examination of the absurdity of the different sets of expectations placed on men in the 21st century, both by society at large and by the men themselves.  Lone Star Spirits evokes the tenaciousness of the continued existence of failing small towns, and the people that choose to live in them.  Lone Star Spirits is also about how love saves people, even in the most unromantic of ways.  Everybody in Lone Star Spirits repeatedly makes you want to shake them to knock some sense into them, then a minute later you want to give them a hug. They are ridiculous and wonderful people.  I wouldn’t have thought a liquor store would be a terribly uplifting place to put a play, but I thoroughly enjoyed hanging out at Lone Star Spirits in the Jungle Theater.  You will, too.  (runs through May 7, 2017 - now extended through May 14th)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(photo at top - l to r: Nate Cheeseman [Drew], Thallis Santesteban [Marley], John Catron [Ben], and Christian Bardin [Jessica] in Jungle Theater's production of Lone Star Spirits; photography by Dan Norman)

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