James Venhaus’ “Ugly People” at Pantagleize Theatre

When is it appropriate for a critic to review community theatre? Does the sometimes-searing analytical focus of criticism deal fairly with the goals of a community theatre production? It makes me nervous. I support the success of community theatre and the right of “non-professionals” to enjoy the experience of performance in a community setting. People who make their livelihoods in other fields often give outstanding performances, some equal to professional endeavor. But is it truly fair, in general, to compare the results of their efforts to those of “professionals”? Welcome to my review of Fort Worth based Pantagleize Theatre’s “Ugly People” by regional playwright James Venhaus. I have tried to be fair but truthful in my critique.

Pantagleize Theatre, currently located in a building near I-30 presumably scheduled for demolition, has produced theatre since 2002. Its mission, according to its website, pantatheatre.org, is “to bring rarely produced plays from local and international playwrights to the metroplex, to encourage inclusive and open casting, to provide artistic opportunities to all neighborhoods and populations in the Fort Worth area”. Local actor and playwright James Venhaus fits this mission ideally. My interest in his current play “Ugly People”, which closed this past weekend, drew me to Pantagleize for the first time.

“Ugly People”, previously produced in San Antonio, shows promise as a political comedy, but would benefit from more workshops and readings before further production. It saunters along predictably, in a rambling, linear fashion, minus much “zing” or the sort of heightened energy that conflict in a major political season can generate. Act One, almost all exposition, needs judicious edit to drive plot and character arcs forward. I noted that an undefined female character sits on stage, not interacting, during much of the act, adding nothing to the show. At some point, with absolutely no logical build up, this character introduces a secondary plotline, engaging in a love affair with a major character. I understand the structural rationale for the secondary plot. It feels awkwardly shoehorned in, not believable, as written. It takes too long to get to the anticipated candidates’ debate in Act Two. It’s fun to involve the audience in questioning the candidates and to predicate the play’s ending on a mock audience “vote”, but why so long to get there? The speeches need condensing down, sharpening up. About political humor: how black to make it? How much topical reference to include? Video commercials and mock news interviews (Nicholas Zebrun), satirizing the current political scene stylistically, are spot on, highly entertaining and very “dark”. They are this production’s high point. At the performance I witnessed, Venhaus had added topical content (“empty chair” and “binder” jokes) a la a Saturday Night Live skit; the audience giggled accordingly. I felt it compromised the play. I hope he will remove this content  and replace it with humor applicable to his own unique characters and plot situations. It feels exploitative rather than creative, as performed. To have lasting value, this play needs to transcend specific political reference. By 2013, or even November 15, 2012, these particular jokes will feel outdated and cheesy.  In comparison, see David Mamet’s savagely dark political comedy “November”. The audience laughs and groans at the recognizable political style/context of the work; its satirical humor is self-contained. No specific topical references “date” it or tie it to a particular campaign season.

Production values in the Pantagleize Theatre performance I saw were weak, with the exception of the video elements. After the show, staff told me that no one gets paid. The bane of theatre! A strong, experienced director can make a great deal of difference in production success; and worthy directors expect payment. I’m surprised that a theatre company with a decade under its belt does not pay its directors. The acting in “Ugly People” was uneven and static. One actor consistently projected his lines as if he were performing in a much larger house; it puzzled me that this production’s director failed to correct this actor’s peculiar vocal choice. Costumes, exhibiting little apparent design concept, failed to reinforce the characters’ personalities or attributes as described in the script or add to the humor. Actors seemed to enjoy performing; judging from the laughter and clapping, the audience seemed thrilled with the production. Some had friends or family members in the cast. I did not realize I was attending this play to review a community theatre production, but I’m glad that a local company took a chance on a local playwright. I sincerely hope James Venhaus learned much from seeing “Ugly People” produced. Whew.

No photos made available.

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