Review of The Family Caper: The Tank and Fool Me Once

Expect the unexpected: The Actor’s Factory presents two plays at the Stoughton Opera House

(Originally published in Dane101 by Nadine Goff, on 4/19/2008 at 6:20am)

A Rob Matsushita play at the Stoughton Opera House? This pairing seemed intriguing if not downright twisted. The whiney playwright who seems to thrive on dramas filled with violence, heavy-duty weapons, and yucky fake blood staging a play at the elegant theater in the city where the coffee break was born and several generations of my family are buried? This I had to see for myself.

Matsushita’s play, “The Family Caper: The Tank,” was sharing the bill with “Fool Me Once” by Doug Reed, according to the poster I saw in the Middleton Library. Even better. The first time I recall seeing these two names together on a playbill was in 2002, when both men contributed short plays to the Mercury Players Theatre production of “Computers in Love.” Their plays were the best of the batch—and in a moment of alliteration madness, I even dubbed “Tech” a Matsushita masterpiece.

Although I knew a thing or two about director Deanna Reed, I didn’t know a thing about The Actor’s Factory until I found a brief description on Oops! A “youth performance group.” Not my usual cup of tea, in fact something I usually avoid. Nevertheless, I decided to drive to Stoughton on Friday evening—even though it was raining fairly hard—because my curiosity had been piqued.

Besides, one of the most important things I’ve learned about theater is to always expect to be surprised, to always expect the unexpected, and to avoid lapsing into the careless use of facile generalizations that too often prove to be false.

There is no “Broom Street style.” Youth theater is not always pedantic and inept: The Milton High School production of “Guys and Dolls,” directed by Michael Chase, that I saw many years ago, was truly exhilarating. There is no “Rob Matsushita style.” In fact some of his best plays are those where he abandons violence and focuses on language, especially clever wordplay.

For a mere $5 donation, I enjoyed a terrific night of theater served up by a large, talented cast featuring a dozen teenagers and a ten-year old who, according to the playbill, has already earned his acting chops at Broom Street and the Bartell. The cast was aided and abetted by Deanna Reed, a backstage crew, and a surprisingly large and very enthusiastic audience.

Each play featured the same 13 actors. I suspect they may have been specially written for this cast. If so, Matsushita and Reed deserve kudos for crafting two plays that work very well despite any constraints in terms of cast size.

Set in a jail holding cell, “The Family Caper: The Tank” is one of the funniest plays I’ve seen in a long time. It’s full of quirky characters and hilarious wordplay—and the young actors give terrific performances. There’s nary a naughty word in this 40-minute comedy and the only real nod to violence is the address of the Chinese restaurant (on Peckinpah).

“Fool Me Once” is set in the world of vaudeville and offers the cast plenty of opportunities to show us their skills in not only acting, but dancing, singing, accents, slight of hand, physical comedy, and playing musical instruments. Although it sometimes lacks the zip and verbal nimbleness of “The Tank,” it’s full of surprises and more than a few laughs.

While the blocking sometimes seems a bit clunky in both plays, both do involve lots of people hanging out in fairly small, confined spaces, so it may have been intentional. In addition, I occasionally felt an actor was a bit too young for a role, but most of the time the cast created sufficient theatrical magic to overcome this problem of perception.

Rather than pick out a few favorites because I have a limited number of column inches available, I’m going to list the entire cast because I can and because talented performers deserve individual recognition. Here goes: Madlen Breckbill, Elizabeth Delaquess, Robin Delaquess, Mya Kahler, Ilsa Reed, Laszlo Reed, Kailey Tachick, Madison Vander Hill, Nolan Veldey, David Walker, Isaac Walker, Leah Warner, and Taylor Weeden

The one thing that really bothered me about this production was a word I heard—or thought I heard—in “The Tank.” It sent me rushing to my dictionary with alacrity, but I couldn’t find it. Maybe I heard it wrong because I tried lots of spelling variants without success. It’s bothering me so much that I may just have to put an offer on the table that Matsushita may find enticing. If he gives me the correct spelling of this mystery word, I’ll break down and tell him whether or not I liked his play, a form of “criticism” I’ve always tried to avoid. Of course, if he made up this mystery word, I’m going to be really disappointed.

The Actor’s Factory will perform “The Family Caper: The Tank” and “Fool Me Once” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 19, 2008 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 20, 2008 at the Stoughton Opera House, 381 E. Main Street. There is a suggested $5 donation at the door.