It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o'er the green cornfield did pass
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding:
Sweet lovers love the spring.
-- From As You Like It, by William Shakespeare
The apple trees are white with blossoms, the lilac is beginning to bud, the squirrels are playing crazy (and sometimes lethal, if they're too near traffic) games of chase-and-catch around the tree trunks, birds are trilling their little hearts out, and the Bug Theatre is staging Spring Love -- an original play created by director John Maloney and his cast through a couple of months of improvisation. It's a blithe, silly, occasionally touching evening -- imperfect theater, but perfect for a date.
The evening begins promisingly, with the focus on a pair of the most beguiling romances in the play. Two women meet when they're both guests on a reality show, and they sneak away together. Two men sit on adjoining park benches, and -- while his girlfriend has her back turned and is feeding the ducks -- one of them, played by Nils Kiehn, begins seducing the other, a bemused Darren Schroader. What follows is an intricate tango, as Kiehn swings back and forth between Schroader and the girlfriend (GerRee Hinshaw).
Meanwhile, the women are performing their own tentative two-step. Mare Trevathan Philpott and Jadelynn Stahl are two of the best and most interesting actresses in the area, but who'd have thought they'd be so deliciously nutty and sensual together? Where much of the acting in Spring Love is presentational, Philpott and Stahl's approach is intimate, drawing you into their tender, flirty and very private world. The trouble is that you see less and less of them as the evening progresses. You want to see the two eating together as a couple, getting jealous, having fights, arguing about adopting a pet. You want to hear the rest of the story. But once they're safely paired, the women just stroll on stage now and then, in between various other bits and skits, arms around each other.
Nils Kiehn, too, is a very appealing actor, and we can see what keeps him returning to Schroader, who seems always bewildered but struggling to keep his dignity. In a lovely scene, Kiehn persuades girlfriend Hinshaw to sing for him, and she does, in a richly melodious voice -- something about hearts that were joined in spring being broken by summer. Meanwhile, he creeps across the stage to where Schroader waits for him. The men argue. Apparently oblivious, Hinshaw continues to sing, gazing forward, extending one hand toward her errant lover. And slowly, slowly, he returns to her; their hands join.
This plot thread has more continuity than Stahl and Philpott's. After Kiehn leaves him, Schroader takes up with a hooker, Step Pearce, who's alternately cranky and charming; he looks a bit like Kevin Bacon, if you can imagine the sometimes surly actor impish and a good bit smaller.
These stories are so quirky and fresh that we want more of them, but not all of the evening's elements work as well. There are songs, monologues and skits -- some of them clever, others sentimental or obvious. It feels as if the script could profit from some pruning and shaping. It wants to be hip but seems afraid to be caustic. Even in spring, after all, love can be rage-filled or destructive. There are monologues that reach for a profundity that might be better found in the characters' interactions. In the second act, a new couple is introduced, played by Karen Slack and Robin Davies. They meet at a singles mixer. Slack has apparently been so traumatized by a previous affair that she's close to psychosis, terrified of trying again; Davies's character is wryly persistent. Their scenes are very funny, but it's a bit late in the day to introduce their story. And the acting here is very broad, whereas the earlier romances, though humorous, were realistic.
There are hilariously cartoony moments throughout: Davies's first stint as Signor Amor, for example, when, in a tatty superhero costume, he flies to the rescue of a couple in trouble; a song of vengeance sung '50s-style by Hinshaw when she finally decides to ditch the faithless Kiehn; a rambling parodistic monologue by Davies about his working-class family being so poor they could only afford one kiss between all of them -- until the terrible day when "Dad told us he'd lost Kiss. Gambling."
A group capable of this much inventiveness should eventually be able to pull the script into a satisfying whole.
However, the acting is uneven. Although everyone in the cast gives his or her all, there's a difference in sheer raw talent. Kiehn brings warmth and feeling to all of his scenes; Todd Simmonds has a forceful voice and a definite presence, marching through scene after scene, blowing tunelessly on his tuba. Katie Benfield is fey, funny and brittle. I loved it when Hinshaw told Kiehn that his infatuation with Schroader was "cuuuute," and I loved the passion with which she attacked him later. She also has a fine singing voice. But she doesn't seem as at home on the stage as some of the others do. Ed McBride does a wonderfully goony dance. Davies either is English or has the best English accent I've heard on a Denver stage (if I remember correctly, he sounded convincingly central European in LIDA's Family Stories: Belgrade last year, so perhaps he just has a gift for accents). He can be very funny, but sometimes his focus and conviction seem to falter in the middle of a scene. I saw Spring Love on opening night, though, so problems of pacing and energy may have resolved themselves by now. Melanie Cruz, an enigmatic figure in a black cocktail dress, is the more complicated female counterpart to Davies's spindly, unheroic Signor Amor. She drifts through the action, encouraging the lovers, wistfully reminiscing. There's always something earnest and pleasing about Cruz's performances, but there's also a damped-down feeling. You want to see her burst through whatever is holding her back and come into her own as an actress. As for Slack, she's a law unto herself, very emotionally expressive, almost always louder, stronger and higher pitched than anyone else on stage. This style fuses well with the character she's created for Spring Love -- a woman with nerves so frazzled she's likely to scream, guffaw or leap several feet into the air if anyone so much as looks at her.
I was paying more attention to the acting and the theme, but it seemed to me that the production values were fine. Set designer Ken Penn makes good use of the limited space, using platforms set at various heights and providing a kind of lit stage-within-a-stage for the tableaux. Jacob Welch's lighting is bright and supple, and good use is made of song, both live and recorded (John Rivera is responsible for sound design).
There's something particularly involving about watching actors perform in a piece they've made themselves, knowing that the words they speak actually emanated from their own thoughts and feelings. But a jaundiced outside eye is also required, a playwright or director who can sharpen the work and cut out anything flabby, boring or too cute.
Still, these are all charming people, charmingly musing about love. And it's spring. With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino. So grab a companion and take a seat.
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