Arriving this past Friday night at Trenton's Open Book Theatre for a performance of "Life Sucks," which runs through Sept. 30, there was one thing I knew for sure: that actress Linda Rabin Hammell would give yet another excellent performance in whatever role she was about to portray. Even if the play sucked, I thought, she would at the very least be its high point.
Well, the play didn't suck. Far from it. In fact, it was quite entertaining and thought provoking. Heck, even the lighting design by 2015 Wilde Award winner Harley Miah generated numerous raves from theatergoers as they first walked in to the black box performance space - from me included.
As such, Hammell didn't have to bear the weight of the show on her shoulders. With seven Wilde Awards nominations and one win under her belt since 2006 (which places her in the elite top two-percent of all nominees over the past 16 years), Hammell is known for creating an amazing array of totally believable and fully realized (yet often-quirky) characters. She can now add her performance as Babs to her ever-growing list of memorable accomplishments.
But she wasn't alone.
Jonathan Davidson - a young actor whose stare could intimidate the devil, and who I once described to a friend as someone who "gleefully lurks around the dark corners of the stage" - is a more-recent favorite. As he's matured both in age and stage experience, so too have his performances, and as Dr. Aster, it shows. He's another whose work I try to catch whenever our schedules match.
And then I couldn't help but smile when I saw Mandy Logsdon's name in the program. Appearing more recently on my radar, she's what I'd call an "acting chameleon," as she easily morphs between loud, boisterous and bigger-than-life scene stealers who delightfully chew and spit out the scenery, to adorable young girls and women who ooze sweet tenderness. With but a simple glance or an almost-imperceptible change in facial expressions, Logsdon can warm or break your heart with equal skill. She does both in the role of Pickles.
Davidson and Logsdon, it should be noted, earned their first Wilde Awards nominations this year (with Davidson winning for best supporting actor in a play),* which means the show's acting credentials were quite impressive before the house even opened. But since producer Krista Schafer Ewbank is also a smart director, she doubled down and added a handful of other strong and talented actors to the mix - many of whom, I suspect, will be on critics' radar for future acknowledgement.
Not surprisingly, then, the entire cast was quite adept at and comfortable bringing to life a rather unusual, sometimes-oddly-fourth-wall-breaking adaptation of Anton Chekov's "Uncle Vanya." It's not an easy play to stage (or interpret), as one is never quite sure whether "Life Sucks" is a comedy or a drama. (With absurdist theater, it's rarely easy to tell.) And since patrons are initially caught off guard with the show's sprinkles of audience participation, it also leaves the actors vulnerable to the ever-changing whims and foibles of theatergoers who may or may not be comfortable being drawn into the act. (That's when improv skills come in mighty handy!)
So with talented actors, a smart director, excellent support by the technical designers and a tough, but intriguing script by Aaron Posner, my Friday night at the theater was quite an enjoyable one. And it reinforced an earlier observation that Open Book is a theater to be taken seriously by patrons and industry participants alike. I'm eagerly looking forward to watching as Ewbank and her young company continue to mature and assume a significant voice in our ever-changing theater scene.
The Bottom Line: Does life suck? Maybe. Maybe not; that's for you to decide. What surely does NOT suck, however, is Open Book Theatre's delightful opening show of its fourth season.
For complete show details, CLICK HERE.
For more about Open Book Theatre, CLICK HERE.
Center: Joshua Brown as Vanya. Clockwise from Bottom Left: Jonathon Davidson as Aster, Taylor Morrow as Sonia, Dale Dobson as Professor, Caitlin Morrison as Ella, Linda Rabin Hammell as Babs and Mandy Logsdon as Pickles. Photo: Krista Schafer Ewbank
Foreground: Linda Rabin Hammel; Background: Taylor Morrow.
* CORRECTION: Since I'm the guy who managed the process to determine this year's Wilde Awards nominations and wins, you'd think I'd have gotten this sentence correct. Or at least made it clear who was nominated and who won. But, no: After moving a few sentences around a couple of times and rewriting a few others (and then forgetting to go back and update the rest), the initial version of this sentence led my readers down the wrong path. The information is correct now - and I offer my humblest apologies to one and all.