It was a packed house during the closing weekend of Drive Theatre Company’s world premiere production of “Rite of Seymour” at the Son of Semele Theater.
So packed, in fact, that the start of the play was delayed as the crew scrambled to find enough chairs to accommodate the oversold audience, some of which were set up in the only aisle of the intimate space. (“If there’s an emergency… just push the chairs and run for it,” we were instructed.)
Though the space was limited, the production made impressive use of it with atmosphere-enhancing audio and visual elements. The costume design was impeccable, the makeup was very well done, and the sets were detailed and effective.
Playwright Allison Volk’s story follows Helena Gray (Mary Ellen Schneider), a 1950s housewife whose poet husband, Seymour (Robert Paterno), is slowly being “de-evolved” at the hands of a mad scientist/family practitioner (Bilal Mir). Unfortunately for Helena, she realizes this just as Seymour has entered the “homo chimextus” phase — the day before she planned a dinner party to pitch his poetry to a respected publisher.
Of course, that’s no reason to cancel a party. The event turns ultra-zany as Helena attempts to keep her husband’s transformation hidden, the doctor becomes increasingly insane, and the guests cannot keep from arguing amongst themselves.
The look of the play was truly excellent. Paterno skillfully acted as de-evolved Seymour, which, combined with his monkey makeover, was pretty disturbing. Yet convincing! The audience is initially horrified at his appearance but then grows to find him endearing, as do the characters in the play.
The set changes from the doctor’s waiting room to the Grays’ home and back again did take quite a while, but the cast made these changes in costume — often in character — which made them much more interesting. Jeremy Kinser as Mr. Anderson was especially good at this: he took advantage of all of his time onstage to keep the audience entertained and play up his character for extra laughs.
“Rite of Seymour” really excelled in its ensemble scenes. There was good chemistry among the actors, and they were able to effectively deliver jokes and play off one another in these big scenes. Mr. and Mrs. Anderson (Kinser and Deborah Jensen), in particular, gave standout performances and had the best comedic timing of the group.
More low-key scenes that featured only two characters, such as the introduction to Helena in the doctor’s office, dragged on a bit more. The doctor, who fancies himself an innovator similar to Igor Stravinsky, gave a few overly long monologues that emphasized Mir’s uncomfortable onstage demeanor and tendency to thrust his hands into his pockets while performing.
But the overall production of “Rite of Seymour” was a polished group effort. With some trimming of the script in a few key places, the play could be solidified as a more powerful force of comedy.