The thing about a good sandwich shop is that there's something there for everyone. Want meat? Lots of meat available. No meat? Get a vegetarian option. Provolone, American, Gouda? Take your pick. Onions, wit' or wit'out. Heavy mayo, light mayo, or no mayo. White or wheat.
Appropriately, Flashback Theater Co.'s latest offering in the Black Box Theater is much the same way. Between "American Hero," a dark comedy about chaos in a sandwich-focused chain restaurant, and the three locally produced short plays that accompany it, there is something available for everyone in terms of tone and theme.
You wanna laugh? You'll laugh yourself silly. You like drama? You'll have your heartstrings tugged. You like really weird stuff? We got that too, everything from turnkeys on heads to anthropomorphic sandwiches from the disco era.
In other words, it's more than a sandwich -- it's a full theater meal.
Following are my impressions of the production after getting a sneak peek of it earlier this week. As always, I qualify this by noting it's not a true objective theater review -- I know all these people as friends and colleagues too well to ever be very harsh, and I would never want to say anything to hinder the efforts of our local arts community. But I do like to provide some observations and thoughts on what people can expect if they're thinking about going to see it and maybe help make that decision a little clearer.
I should also put something else out in the open: One of the short plays being staged before the main attraction, "Waiting for Bardot," was written by yours truly. It is a thoroughly exciting experience to see such talented performers take the words I put on a page and bring them to life for the enjoyment of others, and I couldn't be happier with how it turned out.
But let's start with "American Hero." The main play features Bailey Patterson as young, optimistic worker bee Sheri, Keifer Adkins as former Wall Street wise guy Ted, and Krissy Brant as a flirtatious single mom with a penchant for unpredictability. The three are the employees of fictional sandwich shop "Fresh 'N Toasty," respectively the baser, finisher, and wrapper (yes, there are names for the specific jobs of your friendly neighborhood "sandwich artists").
Flashback -- again, like a good sandwich shop -- has given local audiences a variety of theater offerings over time. Some are all-time classics, like "Pirates of Penzance" and "The Importance of Being Earnest"; some are local creations, like "Rosies: The Women Who Riveted the Nation"; and others still are more modern fare that have known wide-scale national acclaim. "American Hero," by Bess Wohl, is in the latter category, having received rave reviews for its off-broadway performances. It is not completely "family-friendly" -- by which I mean, if you don't want your kid hearing some four-letter words (or don't want to hear them yourself), you should be warned -- but if you're okay with adult language and themes, then this play about life in the corporate franchise world will give you plenty to chew on.
Without giving away too much of the plot, three people are hired to work at a new franchise location of this fast-food chain, and the manager leaves them alone to fend for themselves -- for far longer than any of them expect. Like sliced meat, the story is cut up into easy-to-digest bits.Things get desperate, personal struggles and diverse backgrounds intertwine, and there is a surreal dream sequence that simply has to be seen to be appreciated. I could not do it justice with merely the English language.
Through it all, however, the heart of the play -- the meat in the sandwich, if you will -- is the iconic concept of the "American Dream." Making it in the world. Hard work, innovation, good old-fashioned gumption. How these ideas connect and clash with real-world challenges that people face drives this "bottle episode" story forward through the lives of its characters.
Flashback's Sommer Schoch, the director of "American Hero," has a gift for matching the perfect person to a role when given a thorough-enough pool of actors. That truth shines through here, as does another Flashback trait: the theater company's knack for discovering preternaturally talented young people. Patterson, only a senior at Southwestern High School, is one of those wunderkinds. Patterson has absurdly innate sensibilities for comic timing, and her microexpressions and mannerisms are a joy to watch; blink and you'll miss her pitch perfect reactions to the chaos going on around her, so subtle are they. Sheri is the young "everywoman" of the sandwich shop, who tries her best to do her job despite the nonsense unfolding around her -- and must face consequences with serious implications for her future. Patterson's part could have been dry in comparison to the others, but her pinpoint performance ensures that it is not, and this young actress is bound for big things, no doubt.
Krissy Brant as Jamie, the sandwich shop's resident sex kitten with a vulnerable core, also stands out. Brant was the star of "Rosies," playing the real-life "Rosie the Riveter," and was impressive enough there, but her growth as an actress is on full display in this play, one that challenges her to play a role that could prove daunting to someone less game. Jamie is a single mom raising three kids who has a bit of an impulse control problem. Sometimes this presents as making her a fun party girl; at other times, it puts her in jeopardy. Brant avoids the trap of making a caricature out of the character, allowing us to feel for her when it would be easy to not take her seriously. That's much easier said than done as an actor, and Brant succeeds wildly.
Adkins brings much of the real comic relief as Ted, though he has the opportunity to bring a real intensity to the role as well -- something that seems to come naturally to Adkins, an experienced performer. Ted blames the recession for knocking him off the perch of his high-paying executive job and bringing him down to the level of lowly sandwich shop employee, but despite his discomfort, he is also a source of stability in the midst of the storm these characters endure. There is pathos to Ted, no doubt, but Adkins never loses a sense of fun in the role, with a comically brash accent and a joy for playfully teasing the audience. Last seen in the very serious "Boats Against the Current" at Flashback, it's nice to see Adkins show us a different side of himself.
Bit parts by Thomas Alvey, Tiffany Warren and Brian Covert round out the play, each of them dependable actors who make the most of their limited time in the sandwich shop and will have you cracking up. At various points, each had me laughing myself silly. But the real star of this show is the set. Flashback turned its Blackbox Theater into an honest-to-goodness sandwich shop, and the experience is immersive; the audience can sit at tables as they would in a restaurant rather than stuffy traditional seating, and watch our characters interact around a Coke machine, a menu board, and full counter, just like you'd find in a real eatery. The attention to detail here is incredible, and represents a technical watershed for Flashback Theater Co.
As for the other three short plays, each brings something totally different to the table, showcasing the rich diversity of imagination present in our area's stable of playwrights. A.S. Todd's poignant "To Leave a Land" is set right here in Pulaski County, as a family prepares to sell and leave the rustic farmland that's been in their line for generations. Flashback regular Amber Frangos tries her hand at directing this time, and digs for every bit of substance in the material. Brian Simmons, Mr. Darcy from Flashback's "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly," is in each of the short plays, and gets to play a vastly different role in each, demonstrating his talent and versatility as an actor. Here, as the frustrated dad facing a harsh reality, Simmons brings the drama and hits us all right square in the feels.
Along with him, local theater veteran Martha Pratt, always a commanding presence on stage, plays the wife who shares her husband's reservations about moving. Pratt makes us feel the human side of the transaction, pulling off a playfulness behind which lurks sad reservation. It's a dependably great performance by Pratt in a small amount of stage time. Alvey, Covert, Bella Allison, and Emily Stevens round out the cast of this moving and relatable tale of the pain that inevitably comes with change.
David Daring's "What a Day" is a curiosity, a surrealist fever dream drenched in metaphor and concept. Pratt and Covert play as wind-up toy figures living out a workaday domestic existence -- aside from the mysterious Tinkerman (Simmons) figure they revere as a sort of deity. Warren's Frederica shakes things up when she enters the room, introducing an element of doubt and independence into a world based on blind belief.
The concepts of religious fervor, of blissful ignorance vs. the bitten apple of knowledge, and of the consequences of freedom are the stones upon which this narrative is built, but Frangos does an excellent job of carving a very human story out of this bizarre world that the audience can follow and connect with, even in the face of such unusual imagery. Also credit the actors, particularly Covert and Pratt, who both must convey robotic rigidity while at the same time displaying familiar emotions like joy and fear. It's a strange but wonderful task that's accomplished by them admirably.
And then there's "Waiting for Bardot," my play, the court jester of the trio of shorts. Simmons, Warren and Brant star in this comic tête-à-tête between Albert, a priggish pseudointellectual windbag, and his not-as-ditzy-as-she-seems lover Esther. Their relationship is tested after Albert reveals his affection for classic film bombshell Brigitte Bardot and a war of wordplay is the result.
This play has been seen twice before -- once at Somerset Community College for Reader's Theatre, and once as a Kentucky New Play Series selection in Louisville. Both times it was directed by the late, great Mark Isham, a beloved member of our local theater community who passed away last year, and Adkins as the director had a tall task filling those shoes. Clearly he succeeded, as this is the richest, liveliest version of this little ditty I've seen yet. I played the Albert role myself the second time, and let me tell you, Simmons is better at it by far.
Simmons' hilarious bombast plays wonderfully off of Warren, who is a force of nature as an actress, alternately exhibiting coyness, frustration, anger, and curiosity in the course of the conversation, and yet always nailing that comic line delivery. Each of her roles across this production is lively and energetic, as Warren is fearless about being funny on stage. This is her first time acting with Flashback after having been in SCC's "Midsummer Night's Dream" last fall, and is another tremendous local find for the company. As for Brant ... spoilers, sweetie.
The three local plays make for a satisfying appetizer before the main course, "American Hero." It's a leap forward for Flashback Theater Co., as a wonderfully conceived evening of theater featuring comedy, tragedy, and everything in between. There isn't just one hero here -- it's a whole Justice League full of them that makes this achievement possible.
Performance dates are Friday, September 13 at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, September 15 at 2:30 p.m.; Thursday, September 19 at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, September 20 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, September 21 at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, September 22 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 at the door for adult, $12 in advance and $15 at the door for students. Visit flashbacktheater.co/ online for tickets and more information.