Double Acts: Theatre Nova's "Popcorn Falls" is full of comedic riffs
The new play Popcorn Falls is an energetic romp, full of impressions, wit, and (slightly manic) charm. Written by James Hindman and directed by Daniel C. Walker, Popcorn Falls features two men riffing off one another in the style of comedy duos like Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello. The time breezes by as the actors take on fifteen different roles, bringing to life the citizens of an entire small town.
The play focuses on Ted Trundell (Jeff Priskorn), the mayor of Popcorn Falls, and his friend, Joe (Jonathan Jones). When Mr. Doyle -- also played by Jones, a grinch-like role similar to Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life but with the lilting accent of a villainous Jimmy Stewart -- tells the mayor that he plans to take over the town and turn it into a sewage treatment center unless they can successfully put on a play that the town agreed to many years earlier. Ted decides that he’ll do whatever it takes to save his home -- even writing and directing a play despite having practically no familiarity with theater whatsoever.
The plot is a fairly standard underdog story, following a town full of misfits trying a desperate gambit to save their town from destruction. But the writing is engaging and the many inhabitants are wonderfully eccentric caricatures, played with gusto by the two actors. The misfit citizens include a frog-voiced dressmaker (Jones), a librarian who walks around constantly petting one of her countless cats (Jones), and a one-armed lumberyard owner (also Jones). The subplot focuses on both Ted and Joe’s complicated romantic relationships with a quiet barmaid Becky. Since both Ted and Joe need to interact with Becky, at different points in the evening both actors wind up also playing Becky.
Jonathan Jones is fantastic at differentiating his countless roles even if he's merely adopting a new accent and posture without altering his costume at all. He’s endearing as Joe, sweet as Becky, dastardly as Mr. Doyle, and fabulous as eight or nine other assorted people. The script even includes a few touching moments and quiet monologues for him, and Jones makes the most of all of these.
Jeff Priskorn’s role doesn’t often require the same chameleon-like feats of metamorphosis, but since his main character, Ted, is onstage almost all of the time, the actor needs to successfully embody an everyman that the audience can root for amidst all the zany people surrounding him. Priskorn does this ably and gets in a few great moments of playing some cartoonish characters as well. There’s also a delightful scene when Priskorn, as Mayor Trumbull, enters a house filled with cats despite being allergic to animals. As he mimes stepping over and crouching under the critters and has them leaping into his unprepared arms, Priskorn makes mewling cat noises to punctuate his sneezes. It’s one of many charming bits for Priskorn, making fine use of his ability to mimic sounds.
Walker’s direction is careful and orderly despite the constantly shifting personas, successfully keeping all of the characters distinct and their motivations clear. The choice to use a spare minimalist set makes sense, given how easily confusing all of the action could become if there were more props and pieces of furniture cluttering the space. What items are onstage are used effectively, especially a small chalkboard that informs the audience where each scene takes place and two doors at the back of the stage for various characters to walk into and out of.
There are a few scenes that feel somewhat unnecessary, and there are even one or two characters that don’t seem to belong in the story. Also, occasionally the play starts to feel like a very long Saturday Night Live skit. But for the most part, the time whizzes past in an entertaining flurry, punctuated occasionally by thoughtful and moving pauses. In one of those pauses, Becky describes the town’s citizens as an island of misfit toys who desperately wanted to achieve something of value in their lives but stopped short of living up to their potential. Becky explains that Ted is giving these people hope, which is wonderful but frightening for them all.
In a case of life imitating art, after Popcorn Falls finishes its Theatre Nova run, Hindman plans to stage it again this summer at the Snug Theater in Marine City. With a population of around 4,000 people, Marine City could easily stand in for Popcorn Falls, and, like in the show, the Snug Theater opened a few years ago when a large personality decided that theater could help bring life back to their community. In that case, Kathy Vertin (who both co-owns and is the executive director of the Snug Theater) has successfully attracted audiences from all around. The upcoming production will feature Hindman himself as one of the two actors.
As Hindman said about the play, “It celebrates the little guy -- if you believe in yourself, you can do it. And people [audiences] are actually taking the ride -- that’s been really rewarding.”
Toby Tieger has directed, acted in, and written plays over the last 10 years, and sees theater as often as he can. He is a bookshelver/processor with the Ann Arbor District Library.
"Popcorn Falls" runs through February 12 at Theatre Nova (formerly the Yellow Barn venue). Performances are at 8 pm on Thursdays-Saturdays and at 2 pm on Sundays. Tickets are $20 each or pay-what-you-can for those in need at theatrenova.org.