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Barrel of Laughs

Colorful cast exults in hilarious weirdness of AT's new 'Wonder of the World'

By David Templeton

My old life is 463 road signs behind me!" proclaims Cass, a manic yet charismatic woman who exults a little too joyously in the opening moments of David Lindsay-Abaire's darkly comedic play Wonder of the World. Mounting the production at the temporary 75-seat "black box" venue while waiting for construction to conclude on the grand, new Sixth Street Playhouse facility located right next door, Actors Theatre is definitely an organization in transition. This makes up-and-coming playwright Lindsay-Abaire's work, directed by executive director Argo Thompson, the perfect show to mark the company's last effort before starting a new life in a new location. Wonder of the World is all about transition, with each of its six main characters caught in the messy midst of changing from one way of living to another.

Cass (the astonishing Liz Jahren) has deserted her mild-mannered husband, Kip (Karl Mossberger), after discovering something shocking in his sweater drawer. She subsequently attaches herself to Lois, a pessimistic, pickle-barrel-toting stranger, whom she meets during the long bus ride to Niagara Falls, where one of these women hopes to restart her life and the other intends to end it. Simultaneously traumatized and inebriated with her newfound freedom, Cass has apparently abandoned all accepted rules of social engagement, frequently blurting out whatever pops into her mind to whomever she meets. "Someone disappointed me in an unspeakable way, and now my synapses don't work properly," she explains. That's as good an explanation as any.

Two minutes after meeting the heartbroken, hard-drinking Lois (Ché Lyons), Cass brightly suggests, "Hey! Do you want to be my sidekick?" The surprised Lois responds, "You have got to learn how to segue!" Cass, who is hungry to taste the life she believes she has been missing, doesn't have time for polite segues, and neither does this play, which bounds and ricochets from one weird new thing to another with exuberant abandon. Cass, you see, has a list--a long one, carefully written out on index cards--of all the experiences she plans to have with what's left of her life. Acquiring a sidekick is one of them, as well as wearing a blonde wig, engaging in a torrid love affair with a stranger, learning to speak Swedish, becoming friends with a clown and witnessing an execution by lethal injection.

By play's end, of course, Cass will have checked (almost) all of these from her list, with Lois' reluctant help. This uneasy "sidekick" becomes so wrapped up in Cass' life that she keeps putting off her own plans of going over the falls in the aforementioned pickle barrel. Along the way, the two encounter a wig-wearing tourist, an acrophobic helicopter pilot, a trio of look-alike waitresses and a marriage counselor who moonlights as a clown (all played by the quick-changing Nicolette O'Connor). They also stumble across the sweet-natured widower Captain Mike (Chris Schloemp), whose late wife was killed by an enormous jar of peanut butter, and who just might be Cass's soul mate.

The absurdity of it all builds when Kip, piteously pining for his truant wife, hires a team of married private eyes (Holly Vinson and Gene Abravaya) to track Cass down. All of these people are linked in ways they never fully understand, and the whole thing culminates in a bizarre group-therapy session, presided over by the clown, involving a few rounds of the Newlywed Game played at gunpoint in Cass and Lois' hotel room (it makes sense, more or less). Working on a whimsical, utilitarian set by Patrick Kroboth, with rainbow-inspired costumes by Pamela Johnson, Argo Thompson's hardworking cast plummet through this ever-thickening soup of oddness with only monetary lapses of energy and rhythm.

Anchored by the elastic performances of Jahren and Lyons, this very funny play, with its nutty blend of hope and cynicism, is indeed a wonder to behold. You should definitely put this one on your list.


'Wonder of the World' plays Friday-Sunday through Feb. 6. Friday-Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 3pm. Actors Theatre's temporary home is at the Dance Center, 56 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. $15-$22. 707.523.4185.

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From the January 19-25, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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