|Kathleen Silloway, Aaron Morrow, and Karlyn Weaver|
By Tina Arth
For the past three years, Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theater (H.A.R.T.) has given local playwrights the opportunity to enter scenes from original plays in their “Page to Stage” competition. The 2014 winner, Sally Stember’s Agatha on the Rise, is currently being offered as a full production running through July 26th. The competition not only allows playwrights the opportunity to showcase their work, it also gives them a chance to solicit the feedback essential to refining their scripts before attempting to take them to a larger audience. Having been through this process in 2014, I can attest to its value – we made myriad small changes throughout the rehearsal period, and we were able at the close of the run to cut about 10 minutes and a complete scene out of the original show!
Author Stember has already begun this process – in her author’s notes she alludes to script changes inspired by Director Sarah Ominski, and freely admits to some huge (sorry, “Big Booty Judy”) changes as the show moved from page to stage. While the script may not yet be ready for prime time, the abundance of hearty laughs from the opening night audience attests to the play’s potential, and the experience of seeing Agatha in full production will undoubtedly give Stember an abundance of ideas on how to hone and polish an already funny show.
The mystery/comedy hovers around the story of private detective Agatha and her attempts to reunite (in both life and death) with her much-married ex-husband, Giles. The relevance of auxiliary characters is sometimes muddy – except for the two who are murdered, as they cleanly establish the secondary but essential “whodunit” plot. Any attempt to explain the story in more detail would be futile – it really needs to be seen to be (somewhat) understood.
Agatha is entertaining because the cast commits so completely to its absurdity. Aaron Morrow, as “Big Booty Judy,” is over the top (without falling over) as only a man with a heavily padded butt can be, and he does a marvelous job of balancing on some truly terrifying high heels. The irrepressible Scott Stephens brings his patented leprechaun charm to several small but diverting roles, and Karlyn Weaver uses her impressive stature and a commandingly mystic presence to create a memorable (if short-lived) “Madame Vadoma.” Leslie Inmon-Collins has the key, but somewhat thankless, role of “Agatha” – we may not understand quite why she wants Giles so fiercely, but she earns our sympathy as she schemes and spies her way back into his life. Mark Putnam as “Giles” is a sleazy scoundrel with absolutely no awareness of others – Putnam seems born to portray insensitive, narcissists with just enough superficial charm to win attention and affection from his betters.
A fundamental structural problem with the script is a severe lack of balance between the lengths of the two acts. Act I runs for over 1.5 hours, Act II for somewhat under an hour. The effect (particularly in a play with a lot of plot complexities) is audience fatigue by intermission. With judicious editing, Stember should be able to reduce the length of Act I without sacrificing any of the best humor.
HART’s “Page to Stage” is a wonderful addition to the Washington County theater scene, both for providing a stage for unproven works and for giving talented authors the opportunity to test their material with real actors, a real director, and real audiences!
Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre (HART) presents Agatha on the Rise through Sunday, July 26th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m.