July 23, 2010
“Sure it’s funny, but is it commercial?
“Bert Hellmunn Fights The Demons Of The Stage,” the new original play written by Dan Kehde and presented by The Contemporary Youth Arts Company, is a brilliant commentary on the struggle between art and commerce, portrayed as a series of episodic snapshots of the life and work of a “successful” playwright.It manages to be smart, sexy and funny, with a strong cast and a sly, even self-referential script.
The play begins as Bert Hellmunn, captured perfectly by Donnie Smith, a struggling playwright, starts to make changes to his work in order to be more commercially successful. Nik Tidquist plays Jack, his cynical producer, and some would say “partner in crime,” to a “T,” providing just the sort of devil-on-the-shoulder nudge needed to persuade Bert to aim for the lowest common denominator.
The scenes alternate between Bert’s monologues, glimpses of his life, and scenes from the plays that he’s written. We see Bert evolve from an idealistic dreamer during the latter Beatnik era to an aging, Viagra-fueled cynical hack who cranks out whatever it takes to put butts in the seats. What makes this so funny is that, even though Bert is a likable, sympathetic character, his bad behavior is continually rewarded by critical raves, whereas the work he does when he tries to be honest and true turns out to bomb, both commercially and critically. Buried in the heart of the play is the possibility that Bert really isn’t very good at writing plays.
We get to see Bert’s failed relationships along the way. First we meet Sally Ann, his first leading lady and eventual ex-wife, who is played perfectly by Jackie Cobb. We get to see how Bert’s relationship with Sally Ann shapes his work and drives him to write more commercially successful plays.
In Bert’s later days, his relationship with a much younger actress, Veronica, played by the versatile Kym Waybright, who convinces him to be true to his artistic vision, which results in a commercially disastrous dramatic turn for Bert.
The uncoventional narrative works here, largely due to an excellent cast, and largely due to Kehde’s sharp, witty dialogue. The play is filled with clever insights, theatrical in-jokes and several topical jabs that will keep an informed audience in stitches.
The plays-within-the-play, where we actually get to see the “work” of Bert Hellmunn are priceless parodies of the commerical and artistic indulgences of the stage. The way he recycles the events of his life into fodder for his audiences is hysterical. “Bert Hellmunn Fights The Demons Of The Stage” is both a valentine to, and a scathing critique of, everything that’s wrong with live theater for the last fifty years.
The ensemble cast is excellent. There’s not a weak link on stage, and everyone gets a moment to shine. Montana Rock is fantastic as Bert’s romantic rival and leading man in the early part of the play, and his stage alter-ego in the latter part. You just want to slap the heck out of him. Sean Price is outstanding as Al, Bert’s director and foil, who gets to read the “reviews” in a ritualistic manner after each play opens.
Robbie Hughes, Jenny Totten, Lauren Mallory and Heather Newhouse fill out the ultra-talented cast of this most unusual play. Such an unconventional presentation would not work with anythng less than a stellar cast, and Kehde, who also directed, shows once again that CYAC can plumb the depths of the talent pool in this area and come up with some of the strongest performances you’ll see on stage.
Donnie Smith and Nik Tidquist, as always, are impressive as hell on stage. There are performers on broadway who can’t hold a candle to these guys. Jackie Cobb is a revelation, pulling off what may be the most unsympathetic character in the play and making her exceptionally likable. Kym Waybright, in only her third stage role, is amazing as the “younger woman” to Bert’s older man, and makes her character extremely real.
“Bert Hellmunn Fights The Demons Of The Stage” recalls some of the work of Woody Allen, with the breaking of the “fourth wall” and the cynical exploration of relationships and the follies of artistic pursuits, but it is a wholly original work. Dan Kehde has created a unique distillation of the American Theater scene and it is laugh-out-loud funny.
There is some strong language in the play, and about as much flesh as you can have on stage without crossing the line into nudity, so so prudish theater-goers should be warned: this play takes place in the real world, and the characters speak in a realistic manner.
“Bert Hellmunn Fights The Demons Of The Stage” should be required viewing for any true fan of live theater. It’s a biting, satirical tour-de-force with one of the strongest casts I’ve seen.
IF YOU GO: Remaining show dates are July 23 and 24 and 29 through 31 at the West Virginia State University Capitol Center Theater 123 Summers Street, Charleston.
Each performance starts at 8 p.m. with tickets available at the door the evenings of the performances Tickets are $5.50 for students and seniors (65 plus) and $9.50 for adults.
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