MANCHESTER — In its earliest form, drama originated under the stars, on ancient Greek hillsides where later amphitheaters were built which, still used for summer performances today, stand as monuments.
That ancient magic can be found the rest of this month on a Manchester hillside housing the Southern Vermont Arts Center. There, in a meadow, Dorset Theatre Festival Dina Janis artistic director has transplanted her troupe for the summer, and comes forth with Christopher Durang’s “Laughing Wild,” directed by Jade King Carroll.
This turns out to be a good decision on Janis’ part: the Festival is able to make theater going more easily accessible in the face of industry-specific COVID indoor restrictions which, unlike most of the rest of Vermont, have not yet been relaxed.
The show has one actor and one actress. The characters are not named, and so could be any one of us. The Woman (Mary Bacon) is emotive and volatile. She obsesses about bludgeoning a man in the supermarket who wouldn’t get out of her way when she was trying to figure out what type of tuna to buy.
The Man (Dan Butler) is giving a speech about positive thinking, but keeps drifting into negativity. As fate would have it, he’s the guy the Woman hit in the supermarket. Herein begins the irony!.
The play consists of two 30-minute monologues and a 30-minute second act, some of it scenes between the two characters, including highly improbable but outrageously funny dream sequences.
Bacon and Butler complemented each other well under the stars, skewering a laundry list of 1980s icon, such as Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Phil Donohue, and a well-known target for Durang: the Catholic Church (in which the playwright was raised).
Bacon’s unsteady, even erratic nature burst through to us immediately, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Still, I lost count of how many times I grinned and shook my head uttering, “What a nutcase!”
Butler didn’t disappoint, either, following suit in his own nervously uncertain way, but also taking a shine to the mannerisms of the late Johnny Carson mixed in with more Durang-type insanity. He left the audience in guffaws many times.
Director Carroll’s work at Dorset has been impressive, and the sharpness of her players on opening night showed. Comedy, though, can be tough to work with and Durang’s in particular, while brilliant, is a handful. I’m certain Carroll is already addressing the time run-over from the expected crisp 90 minutes, especially since there is no intermission.
The surrounding outdoors milieu kept effects work interesting. Several light towers have been constructed and strategically placed speakers all support a simple, abbreviated wooden platform stage with a red curtain.
This was Dorset’s first time outdoors under Janis and the entire production crew of You-Shin Chen (scenic), Megumi Katayama (sound), Yuki Nakase Link (lights), Joey Moro (venue), Rodrigo Munoz (costumes) and Olivia Louise Tree Plath (stage manger), should take a bow of their own.
The integration of production infrastructure and effects into the backdrop of the Vermont Valley found soothing harmony as dusk turned to darkness, and all those responsible put in yeoman’s work to make it so.
Durang’s humor is outrageous, over-the-top stuff and even though written in the late 1980s, it has direct parallels to the present day which keep it fresh despite dated references. Is it for everyone? Not always.
Come and laugh, though, because as live audiences are making their way out of the pandemic’s offing, the guiding stars above are beckoning you to take in Dorset’s inane journey of “Laughing Wild.”
“Laughing Wild” by Christopher Durang and directed by Jade King Carroll, will run from July 9-31 at Dorset Theatre Festival’s open-air performance space at the Southern Vermont Arts Center, 930 SVAC Drive, Manchester. Socially distanced outdoor pod seating, and masks optional for fully vaccinated audience members. Tickets: call the box office at 802-867-2223 x101 or visit dorsettheatrefestival.org