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BLEACHER BUMS - A Review
by Jerry Delony
This review of BLEACHER BUMS, is the first of many, for Video Profiles at their Upstages.com site. It is a wonderful theater piece originally conceived by Joe Mantega at the Organic Theater Company, presented here in Austin at the Hyde Park Theater during the merry month of May by the Subterranean Company and directed by award winning actor/director Ken Webster.
I came in at the bottom of the ninth inning of this production's run and what I saw was the final performance of a great show whose real star was, you might say, the Chorus. All of the actors worked so flawlessly in ensemble that singling separate roles out is somewhat difficult but of course I will a little further along in this review( because all of us actors need feedback and want to know someone out there in the audience "got it")
The overall effect the cast created convinced me, as well as the audience (considering our spontaneous applause, cheers and laughter), that we were watching a baseball game at Wrigley Field, where the home team, the Chicago Cubs was playing the St. Louis Cardinals. We're in the bleachers, it's a sunny day in the cheap seats where the die-hard fans who attend every game in rapt devotion sit. Please let me say a few words about the game - it's important background for this review.
My father was scouted by the Cardinals many years ago and he would have been a great member of the team. He could hit and run and was a smart catcher but for family reasons he chose the Oil Industy as a career but he instilled in me a love of the game. I still think baseball is one of the few commendable things we ever exported to the world. It defined the attitude of Americans in the middle of the twentieth century, one of fair play and teamwork. Every time you came to bat you knew you could actually make a difference. You also knew whether you were winning or losing, "the rules of the game" were understood by all who played. This was a period when a handshake was sufficient to honor most business transactions, a time when an individual who played the sport well and made it to "the majors" had truly "arrived". That time seems a remote memory now with players pulling down astronomical salaries, mandatory drug tests and the media snooping around for any slight irregularity or scent of scandal they can blab in print. Now we also suffer the increased vocal and physical aggression expressed by so many of the fans and endure hostile displays of selfishness and poor sportsmanship by quite a few players in this so-called profession. This generation of spectators has come to accept that kind of behavior as the norm. Well, few things remain stable in the world as we make this new millennium move. Our sense of who we are and what is the good, the bad and the ugly may have become clouded and obscured for various reasons, but the good old American game of baseball is still with us Big Time, giving the hardy souls (and some fanatics) called fans a subject to rally around. It still gives us a reason to congregate and share the primal desire to be part of some battle that's worthwhile, one just short of the life and death intensity of gladiators in the Roman arena.
O.K.that's enough of my insights about baseball in general. Now let's get to the actors who created this production. We all know the most vocal of the fans are the ones in the cheap seats, called the bleachers. They're the ones who hope to someday catch that home run baseball as meaningful proof that they had actually been present and part of something significant. Just like them, most of us are searching for that moment of recognition which would prove we had been part of something worth writing home about. Well, to have been a part of this ensemble of actors that created such a convincing moment of time could be held up as proof that you had attained that distinction and it would last for a long time.
The reality established on stage is one of frantic need to be a winner, and intense avoidance of being a loser which borders on the psychotic at times. Here we see reliance on mystic shaman ritual and tribal chanting where winning at the game, relationships and life at any cost is the name of the tune. While playing the game with strength, skill, grace and a sense of ideals is somehow overlooked. However, it all finally comes together and we get a feeling that some of the ferocity and egoism has softened during this intense involvement in being a "fan" and all of us in the audience were involved -it's what theatre should always do !
Here is my impression of the characters who inhabit the world of the BLEACHER BUM's .
A young girl enters by the name of Melody played with intense subtlety by Christa Kimlicko Jones. She's a wannabe model who is working as a waitress. She's like the girl next door on a picnic until "behold" she unveils herself and is wearing a bikini (in which she is a knockout I must add) and proceeds to get some sun. When she began to apply the sun tan oil all bets were off as the male fans grew suddenly silent and she became the final factor in the "big three" of their primal interests: violence, money and sex. Yes this microcosm had it all. To her credit Christa endowed this mostly silent role with true dimension and symbolized the real person of this gang and as such goes through naiveté, confusion (for she knows nothing about the game), dating defensiveness, betrayal of trust and finally finding a truer purpose: being of unselfish service to our next character
Greg, a young blind boy played with hypnotic concentration by Judson L. Jones (no relation to Christa) . Greg is the dedicated fan who never shuts himself out of life because of his disability but shares in the camaraderie of the bleacher set by bringing his radio along so that he can "see" the game and "root root root for the home team" on his own . He knows all the numbers and names of the team, the lineup, the batting averages etc. and can give an announcer-like play by play commentary with just a minimum of description of what's going on . I believe the mark of a really good actor is that you always believe what his character said or did on stage. There wasn't a moment when I disbelieved Greg was blind in the whole Hour and 45 minutes of the play (done in one continuous act). He radiated that second priceless quality "vulnerability" all the while establishing firmly that he wanted no sympathy for he had come to grips with his stumbling block (which is more than can be said about the other characters). He also had the final shoe to drop at the end which squashes the villain of the piece. He sums up all the hopes and prayers of fans everywhere for their beloved team rising into religious zeal forecasting their winning the worlds series. He then turns to Marvin (the most dislikeable of all the disfunctionals in our story resisting his offer of a ride home and the flash of his winnings) and tells him; THAT is when he would ever give Marvin the time of day again! Melody then escorts Greg off with dignity leaving Marvin to stew in his aloneness--I'll come to Marv in a moment.
Next enters Zig. Veteran actor Travis Dean brings this character to vivid life. Talk about energy (well the whole cast goes up and down the scales constantly in this one}but Travis propels this "in your face" role outward with a force that gives a whole new meaning to "the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd" You seem to hear the roar of a jet engine somewhere underneath every line. At times I knew he had to be damaging his throat but it was totally right. .He endowed this role with the likable gruffness of "Archie" in "All in the Family" with just a hint of the born loser of "Gleasons' " character in "The Honeymooners" and so effortlessly knitted everyone( including us in the audience) together that we could have been spending an evening in the bar at "CHEERS". His flaw is not just gambling but losing at it but he has a dose of saving grace (albeit we expect it's only temporary).
His other half appears in the form of Rose, played with great chutzpah by Lana Dieterich. I just finished a film Lana was in, "Next stop Hollywood", ( in which I play the producer}. By the way another member of "Bums" cast, Joey Hood played one of the two leads in that film. Joey played the cheerleader role in the bleachers splendidly I hear but had gone to Mississippi for a wedding and was absent the night I attended the play. (but I gotta tell ya, Robert Fisher gave an electrifying portrayal in the performance I saw.)
Now let get back to Lana. She comes on with all the energy needed to be Zig's wife trading verbal punches with the best of them yet giving Rose a sympathetic touch reminiscent of the long suffering partner in "The Honeymooners" who was capable of equal one-up-manship. She's a middle-aged housewife fighting for her marriage and willing to join the enemy to do it. Lana has a wide range of characterizations she brings to the theatre but I especially liked her use of warmth in getting to Zig so that he had a chance at least to snap out of his gambling frenzy and remember what has a more lasting value--love and family.
Of course we must have a leading man type someone who will display some common sense at times and give us a bit of normality to pivot the hilarity and vulgarity around. One who remains a stable anchor in rough waters. Comes now "Decker" played with tremendously appealing understatement by Eric Peterson. Eric had to handle the usually thankless job of being friend to the friendless, diplomat and peacemaker. He displays tough love to Richie about the consequences when he gambles and gets in over his head. Yes, a Father figure who still remains appealing . He steps over the land mines of these clichés and brings off what could have been a two dimensional performance in a most engaging way by creating a fully formed and memorable characterization.
Which brings us to "Richie" played by Greg Gondek. Greg established a fantastic and sustained presence as Richie that sometimes (in between my loud laughter at his comic flair) left me astonished at the ease he flowed between remarkably savvy con artist, hopeless incompetent and lovable goof so capable of being hurt. He must be the reincarnation of Donald O'Conner (He of the great exuberant physical comedy in "Singing in the Rain") the way he climbed up and down those rising bleachers like a mountain goat. He seemed to me a cross between Harpo Marx and a subdued Jerry Lewis. The ultimate hanger who has such a lack of self-identity that he will join any one who seems to be winning at the time much like our Public Poll driven Politicians). Greg, I loved the comic character which you so flawlessly manifested for us (I also sensed a fine actor was underneath pulling the strings) thank you.
Now we come to "Marvin", played with the winning decadence reminiscent of vintage Zachary Scott portrayals in the movies by David Jones. David gives us the sly snake in the grass with a mesmerizing appeal, which is so needed in this play which presents for our enlightenment and entertainment the best of worlds and the worst of worlds. His character's attitude about life could be summed up as "love of money over life" and "sport is for suckers", "the only real game is win the bet". David played the role with the confidence of a business takeover specialist who has the steely calm of someone used to swimming with the sharks. However, we can see he's playing the Little Leagues, the big fish in a small pond bit, keeping everyone at arms length with his "I'm so smart and the rest of you are so dumb" attitude. This coupled with an inability to trust anyone else always indicates a real longing to belong. David; as the lights slowly faded in the final moments of the play, I saw all sorts of feelings and realizations cascading through you which gave even this character a sympathetic tone,"well done".
Next, let me explore the Cheerleader, played with incredible wacky energy by Robert S. Fisher. Rob wraps it all up for us in his portrayal of the mega-fan as the last depository of Gallagher-type antics allowed in public. Some of the hysterical behavior of baseball fans if done outside of the stadium would be cause for arrest or reason for being put under clinical observation. His Cheerleader spewed forth the virus creating a mob mentality with its chanting and drum beating. This set the stage for Rob as a feverish fanatic, painted in Indian warpaint red, to rush on near the end ready and willing to use all his witchdoctor powers, just short of a rain dance, to cause the other team to lose so that his beloved Cubs can win. The actor brought a Saturday Night Live comic approach to the Cheerleader, even as he spotlighted for us many of the worst things in our society,like the"anything goes" attitude in politics (doing anything to discredit others and put a positive spin on themselves), "score, score, score, never mind how the game is being played", and"poor sportsmanship is just the price you have to pay for success". Robert gave this character 200% the night I saw him and really impacted me.
Last but not least we have the character of the Guard who is too late and a dollar short but is given a sympathetic turn by a mystery guest substituting for Robert Fisher. He played the role of authority trying to quell the spirit of rebellion as the fans got out of hand near the end of the game. Without him we would never have had these immortal lines evoked in response to his simple and direct question, "Who is responsible for all this violence?" The collective video minds of the fans rose as one, chanting .......... "I am guilty, I am Spartacus! No, take me! I am Spartacus!" Facing this supreme defiance, the poor lone cop weighing the prospect of having to arrest the entire population of the bleachers impotently withdraws.
This play rested precariously on scales that needed to be in perfect balance, this concerned not only the individuals in the cast but also the audience. We had to be willing to believe we were at the ball park in one Chicago watching a game unfold blow by blow in real time. The emotional intensity rising and falling according to the crack of a hitter's bat or the umpire's calling "you're out!". All this was carried forward by the director's superb sense of pace and his conviction that each role must blossom into a separate fully rounded person with whom you could identify. This certainly was achieved and these actors did the convincing masterfully.
In these days of easy access to video rentals at Blockbuster, constant reruns of TV series and sitcoms in syndication, with our national library of classic movies depicting practically all of the American story from the coming of the Mayflower to the Apollo Moon shot. One wonders what possible importance this thing called live theater could have on our lives. Oh, we all know about big rock concerts and here in Austin, the music capital, we visit a multitude of cabarets and clubs where we hear bands from mediocre to excellent in live presentations, but that doesn't tell us why we should spend an evening going to some dusty, dingy little theater to see live actors. Well, let me explain: it's like shopping around for antiques and hidden treasures-some you might resell for a profit quickly-some you might keep as investments against future economic uncertainly and some of them you hold onto forever and would not part with for any price.
BLEACHER BUMS was such a play, and it will live warmly in my heart for a long time. It made me remember that in baseball as well as life, when things look bleak and you have only a 50-50 chance of succeeding, that it only takes one more run scored to win. Near the climax of this play these stellar actors chanted in unison. "We want a hit! We want a hit!" Well, they certainly had one!
Just as these fans hopefully have learned as they leave the stadium, we too must sort out our wins and losses and learn to separate the true wealth from the false then with the zeal of the dedicated fan try to realize that win, lose or draw, tomorrow is always another game. I look forward to many more live performances by this group of players. God I Love Good Theatre!