“Fuddy Meers” opens theater department season

The St. Olaf Theater Department kicked off its 2016-2017 season with a production of “Fuddy Meers” in Haugen Theater. The show ran from Oct. 7 to Oct. 9 and sold out three of its five performances. Between the well-written script by David Lindsay-Abaire, the skilled performances by the actors, the beautiful set design and the direction of guest-artist Randy Reyes, the captivating show served as a clear example of the power that good theater can hold over an audience.

Claire (Tara Maloney ’19), the protagonist of “Fuddy Meers,” is a painfully cheery woman. At the beginning of the play, she wakes up to discover from her husband Richard (Ian Sutherland ’18) that she has “psychogenic amnesia,” which means that she forgets her life story every day – everything from her name to her family. The play chronicles one of those days, and introduces us to a variety of strange characters. This includes: Kenny (Ash Willison ’17), Claire’s perpetually stoned son; the Limping Man (Chaz Mayo ’18), who claims Richard is trying to kill Claire and takes her away to the home of her mother Gertie (Christine Menge ’18); and the Limping Man’s puppet-wielding sidekick Millet (Will Ibele ’18). All of these characters come with plenty with odd quirks, unclear motives and dramatic backstories to keep a viewer’s brain whirring.

The script itself is weird in the best way. As the plot twists and turns, the play’s ability to keep everything in order and foreshadow even the most oddball events becomes more and more remarkable. The script takes the audience for a ride and manages to do so even as Claire’s world crashes down around her. As she uncovers the truth about her past, her world grows increasingly complex.

One interesting aspect of the production was the fact that the theater department brought in an outside director. Reyes, a 1999 Juilliard graduate, is a big name in the Twin Cities theater scene. Currently the artistic director of Mu Performing Arts – a Minneapolis Asian-American theater and taiko company – Reyes also served as artistic director for “The Strange Capers” and the theater-in-education director at the Guthrie. He has worked as an actor, director and theater educator everywhere from the NYU Graduate Acting Program to the Seattle Children’s Theatre. His directorial talent showed, and he and the rest of the directing and design crew were able to create a show that will likely stay with the audience for a long time.

The characters and plot provided by the script also gave the actors a lot to work with, and they delivered. Many of the characters have distinctive vocal tics and patterns that are crucial to the plot or reveal some aspect of the play. Nowhere was this more obvious than in Mayo’s Limping Man – who has a lisp in addition to a limp in one leg, a scarred-up ear, and a blind eye – and in Menge’s Gertie. Gertie, it is revealed, suffered a stroke and is now unable to form coherent sentences (the play’s title actually comes from her pronunciation of “funny mirrors”), yet this does not stop Menge from conveying her thoughts and motivations with great skill. In addition, the distinction Ibele made between the voices he used for Millet and his puppet was impressive, and the guarded way in which Sutherland approached his dialogue as Richard stood out, especially as Richard loses his temper at various points throughout the play.

Physical acting was also a key feature of the play, as evidenced by the manner in which Willison slouched her way through her portrayal of Kenny and Mayo’s nicely consistent limp. Overall, “Fuddy Meers” was well-cast and chock full of talented actors who lent humor, poignancy, desperation and power to the play at all the right times.

In addition, the play simply looked beautiful. The initial set design was sparse, consisting of no backdrop and a mat on the floor painted sporadically blue and resembling the sky, or perhaps the ocean. When the lights were down, glow-in-the dark spots on the floor really brought the sky resemblance home. Other set pieces were mounted on wheels and rolled around as scenes changed; a headboard became the front of a car, a kitchen counter turned around into a cellar wall. This simplicity lent a special beauty and supplemented the onstage chaos without upstaging it.

Also, the lighting shifted throughout the show to perfectly capture the mood of each scene, and the pink wave of light moving behind the actors combined with various sound effects to signify Claire’s occasional flashbacks were a nice touch.

“Fuddy Meers” proved to be a dynamic kick-off to the St. Olaf theater department season. The department’s next show will be “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which will play in Kelsey Theater from Nov. 10-13 and 18-19.