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Theatre Review: Otterbein’s Invention of Theatre is a Delicious Romp Through Theatrical History and the Reason we Make Art

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theatre Review: Otterbein’s Invention of Theatre is a Delicious Romp Through Theatrical History and the Reason we Make ArtGrace Hoover (Elizabeth), Benjamin Folts (Kevin), and Evan Moore-Coll (Toby) in the Otterbein University Department of Theatre & Dance production, Invention of Theater. Photo by Ed Syguda.
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The middle show of Otterbein’s 50th Summer Series departs from the tried and true of the rest of the season while still hitting those classic theatre pleasure centers. 2014 grad Sean Murphy returned with his one-act comedy Invention of Theater in a sparking, riotous production directed by Melissa Lusher.

Benjamin Folts (Kevin), Grace Hoover (Elizabeth), and Evan Moore-Coll (Toby) in the Otterbein University Department of Theatre & Dance production, Invention of Theater. Photo by Ed Syguda.

Benjamin Folts (Kevin), Grace Hoover (Elizabeth), and Evan Moore-Coll (Toby) in the Otterbein University Department of Theatre & Dance production, Invention of Theater. Photo by Ed Syguda.

Invention of Theater follows nebbishy Kevin (Benjamin Folts) who falls under the spell of Elizabeth (Grace Hoover). Kevin, working in a stultifying customer service call center, is immediately enraptured with Elizabeth’s charisma and confidence and, just as much, enraptured with the idea of making something out of whole cloth. Elizabeth understands theatre in an intuitive sense from the ground up, frustrating Kevin’s simplistic desire to have things go as easily in the play as his real character would like them. She understands a story needs conflict so, God-like, she introduces a rival for her character’s affections – Toby (Evan Moore-Coil), another character who seems to grasp things more easily than our ostensible protagonist. This triangle gets distended and shaped with the addition of theatrical producer Avery (Steven Meeker), combination realist and Mephistopheles.

Grace Hoover (Elizabeth) and Benjamin Folts (Kevin) in the Otterbein University Department of Theatre & Dance production, Invention of Theater. Photo Credit: Ed Syguda.

Grace Hoover (Elizabeth) and Benjamin Folts (Kevin) in the Otterbein University Department of Theatre & Dance production, Invention of Theater. Photo Credit: Ed Syguda.

The character’s journey from childlike play through polish and back again tromps through hilarious parodies of Neil Simon, Arthur Miller, David Mamet, corny ’80s dystopian work, and Shakespeare. Invention of Theatre deals with why people make art- the desperate human need to be heard and the way the act of creation makes many of us our best selves – and how second guessing (either to make a dollar or just for someone else’s approval) can easily lead to watered down retreads of what we’ve seen before. It also gets the amount of repetition, drudgery, grind, involved in creating anything and how hard it is to make something good. There’s a slapstick sequence around imaginary furniture, a tete-a-tete between Folts and Moore-Coil, done in double time out of frustration that one character accidentally botched that mythical perfect take, that’s as hard as I’ve ever laughed in a theatre.

The quick shifts between broad parody and emotional absurdism come off like acrobatics, looking easy while defying gravity. Lusher’s razor-sharp direction balances machine gun pace and surgical precision, aided by Steven Meeker’s choreography and Phil Cunningham’s fight choreography,while still feeling organic and real. Grace Hoover is a star here, riveting from the second she raises an eyebrow. Evan Moore-Coil’s physicality and comic timing are a joy to watch. Benjamin Folts works as a foil for the two more ostentatious characters and Steven Meeker’s deliciously sleazy puppeteer and makes his viewpoint character more than a cipher,  shading the outlines with real humanity.

Invention of Theater is a little too long and relies on repetition a little more than it should. The false endings go on a little too long. But for a writer making one of his first few plays, there’s an honest, authentic, very funny voice here that sent shockwaves through the audience on the Thursday performance I saw. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in theatre, there are extra bon bons for those of us who grew up around it and know the references but big laughs even if you’ve never seen a play before.

Invention of Theater runs through June 25 with performances at 8:00pm Thursday through Saturday and 2:00pm Friday and Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit otterbein.edu.

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