By Lynn Venhaus
Spry actors Joe Hanrahan and Shane Signorino slip into 21 different characters to play the denizens of “Popcorn Falls,” a daffy mix of vignettes designed to showcase performers’ strengths while paying tribute to small-town personalities – and the power of theater.
This average American town, whose residents prefer to be called ‘kernels,’ has seen better days, and is in danger of bankruptcy because their waterfall has dried up, no thanks to a new dam. Without their claim to fame, tourists and commerce has vanished. But a greedy corporation is ready to pounce, with plans to demolish the town and turn it into a sewage treatment center. Can the town be saved?
Because of an old arts grant, they can get enough money – but writing and producing the play must be done in a week — despite the lack of a theater and experienced thespians. Shades of Blaine, Missouri, the center of “Waiting for Guffman.” Or Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland practicing in a barn – “Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!”
Can this absurd solution work?
Sure, if our dynamic duo of intrepid mayor (Hanrahan) and loyal custodian (Signorino) be the heroes and rally the town with the grant money dangling before them. But in the bigger picture, can art save the world?
You can clearly figure out playwright James Hindman’s thought process. While the optimism is unwavering in this 2017 off-Broadway comedy, the farcical material isn’t as amusing as the portrayals.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Popcorn Falls resembles other quirky fictional settings that evoke warm and humorous memories – Stars Hollow, Mayberry, Greater Tuna, Bedford Falls – heck, even “Frostbite Falls” from “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.” It provides the basis for wacky characters and nutty situations, even if it’s derivative.
The pairing of Hanrahan and Signorino is inspired, with their skills and talent enough to convincingly conjure up a cadre of zany townsfolk.
Hanrahan’s Ted Trundle, the beleaguered new mayor on the verge of divorce, shares quite an interesting backstory. He is counting on the neighboring county’s budget committee to bail them out, and enthusiastically gathers folks at the library to cobble together the plot. Well, this turns into a free-for-all what-did-I-get-myself-into scenario.
Signorino’s main man is head custodian Joe, who is shown at work and at home. He frets about supporting his growing family if the town goes belly-up. He also transforms into the majority of characters – including a female bartender at The Sudsy Mug (as does Hanrahan), her precocious young daughter, the dramatic cat-lady librarian who fancies herself an actress, the snaky corrupt county official, dim but well-meaning sheriff, the one-armed owner of the lumber yard, and a chain-smoking middle-school teacher with a vivid imagination. Hanrahan portrays the local mortician who wants to act in the show.
Both stalwarts of the local theater community, Hanrahan and Signorino work together in the manner of classic comedy duos, manic improv pairs and old-timey vaudeville/variety acts. They know how to work a crowd, with Hanrahan basically the straight man to Signorino’s goofy multitudes, and can easily switch into various roles.
In an impressive turn, Signorino rises to the demand of performing all his characters during the original play’s dress rehearsal.
Instead of costume changes, the characters are distinguished by vocal adjustments, attitudes, posture, and perhaps a hat or accessory or prop.
This is the kind of show The Midnight Company excels at, usually one-acts with little frills but ambitious and often unique and interesting material, realized by a strong but small cast. Director Sarah Whitney has deftly guided the pair for maximum madcap effect.
If at any time it is confusing, that’s the fault of the thin script and not the nimble actors. Hanrahan is nearly in view the entire time while Signorino rushes about to accommodate the others. The pair seemed to be having fun — but the parts are a challenge because of the fast pace.
The simple staging in the Kranzberg Center’s black box gives the men a small space to fill with their clever characterizations in the well-worn “play within a play” format.
Chuck Winning has designed a functional bare-bones set, replicating a budget-strapped town hall meeting room. Scene changes are announced on a small blackboard, and it would help to clean the board every night, for the layers of chalk dust make it difficult to read the later scenes.
Tony Anselmo created a straightforward lighting design that works well within the small confines.
Even though the material is lightweight, Hanrahan and Signorino do considerable heavy-lifting, and they muster enough charm to sell it, along with their sincerity and veteran work ethic. Now, if only the squirrels wouldn’t chomp on the town hall wires because Popcorn Falls can’t afford traps.
The Midnight Company presents “Popcorn Falls” Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., March 28 – April 13, in the Kranzberg Arts Center blackbox theater. Tickets are available through MetroTix.com. For more information, visit www.midnightcompany.com The play is performed without an intermission and is 85 minutes long.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.