Review by Lisa Purchase Kelly

This is going to be a tricky review to write … last Friday I attended the opening performance of Midland's Drop Dead and only saw half a show. One of the actors was injured during intermission (but I hear she is doing fine now), and the show, as it turns out, could not go on. I was unable to attend another performance that weekend and I thought I would have to scrap the review article … how could I review a show that I had only seen half of? Well, here's how … the half a show I did see was so well worth the trip, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to tell folks about it. If half a show was that good, I have to believe that the whole show would be just that much more wonderful. Here's how it went:

When the show started, the Stage Manager was still scurrying around the set, fixing things and sweeping up. An actor came out, sat on the floor, and added another layer to his already ample stage make-up. As curtain time came and went the other actors finally found their way to the stage, whining and back-biting as they straggled in through the house. The actors who showed up were terrible hackneyed has-beens and never-weres who couldn't find their characters, their timing, their lines, or a clear path around the sparse furniture on the simplistic set. We, the audience, were bearing witness to the ridiculous final Dress Rehearsal of "Drop Dead"— the play within the play—starring Mona Monet (aging diva), Chaz Looney (incompetent, but apparently not illiterate), Dick Shalit (Gene's brother, complete with mustache and afro), Brent Reynolds (egotistical stage snob), Candy Apples (former porn star), and an over-the-hill and hard-of-hearing force of nature, Miss Constance Crawford. As their "rehearsal" got under way, they were constantly interrupted by the insane trio of Director, Producer, and Playwright, falling set pieces, botched sound cues, missed entrances, an over-eager Stage Manager, dropped lines, and backstage canoodling. And by about three minutes into the first act I was laughing hysterically, because I realized … I'VE BEEN AT THAT REHEARSAL!

As a fifteen-year veteran of community theater, I could recognize these over-the-top versions of my peers (and myself), and the absurd state of emergency that sometimes precedes a show's opening night. I have worked on shows where the actors had to be careful not to touch the set because part of it was still wet. I have worked on shows where an actor had his script in his hand through dress rehearsal because he did not know his lines yet. I have worked on shows where the gun didn't go off, the phone rang at inappropriate times, and part of the set broke. Drop Dead's "dress rehearsal" was a hilariously exaggerated rendition of everything that can (and occasionally does) go wrong in community theater, and the "bad acting" was pitch perfect in performance.

Drop Dead was farce done right: things fell from the rafters, someone fell through the set, actors were visibly shoved onto the stage, and the Stage Manager was seen chucking fistfuls of snow whenever the weather was mentioned. My favorite sight gag was when two actors carried on a scene while "sitting" on chairs that were just painted on the backdrop … they carried on their conversation crouched there, as if their "acting" would convince us they were actually sitting on furniture.

As the first act drew to a close, the already-beleaguered thespians were stunned by the murder of their Producer, Sol Weisenheimer, who staggers onstage and drops dead. The body was removed during intermission, and as the audience filtered in for Act II we were handed a second "program," this one for the Opening Night of the Dress Rehearsal we had just witnessed. This program served to further build the anticipation of hilarity for the second act, with its outrageous cast bios, fake ads, and crossed out names with penciled-in corrections. If Act II even came close to living up to Act I, it would be a fine show indeed.

And that's as far as we got. I am going to try to get there again this weekend to catch Act II; but even if all I end up with is Act I, it was an absolute delight and I haven't heard that much genuine laughter in a theater in a long time (at least not coming from in front of the stage … backstage it might be a different story). I had a blast at Drop Dead, and, despite my bias as a theater insider, I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't.

Written by Billie Van Zandt and Jane Milmore, and directed by Sonja Roden, Drop Dead is a peach of a production. The previously mentioned "cast" were brilliantly played by (in order) Mary Arvidson, Zach Prout, Kyle Sanborn, Nicholas Joseph Mackey, Trena Winans-Bagnall, and Mary Ann Tessin. Never has bad acting been so good. They were joined in the mayhem by their "offstage" counterparts, with William J. McCartney as the Director, Paul Yakuber as the Producer, Jerry Kocan as the Playwright, and Rodney McFarland as the Stage Manager. I am eager to go back and find out how this crazy cast of too-familiar characters stumble through their "Opening Night" and manage to save the show, solve the mystery and stay alive for curtain calls.

See Drop Dead at Midland Center for the Arts Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00pm (January 20-22).

© Lisa Purchase Kelly, 2011