Going to the theatre comes with a certain level of risk, and no, I’m not referring to the extremely off chance of being steered into a life of flying rodent-themed superherodom due to the untimely murder of your parents after a performance of Die Fledermaus. Theater is a living thing, and each performance of each production carries with it the potential to astound or disappoint. One missed cue by a lead or poor characterization choice on the director’s part, and transcendence becomes cataclysm.
In most cases, the audience’s chances of running into a theatrical Nagasaki increase exponentially in inverse proportion to a given theater company’s resources. Community theatres, therefore, epitomize the risk-reward nature of theater-going. Shoestring budgets and “minor league” talent can yield unexpected pleasures, but they can just as often dole out copious pain. This explains why many theater aficionados in Boulder spend as much or more time at the Denver Center than they do with the smaller, more independent companies in and around the metro area.
But if one swims only in the mainstream, one will surely miss the gems hidden in the tributaries. Longmont Theatre Company’s latest, Over the Tavern, is just such a gem. This charming, hilarious, often touching play deserves to be sold out for the rest of its run. It is by far the best LTC production I have ever seen, and it stands toe-to-toe with the finest “major league” shows in Denver — or anywhere else along the Front Range — in the recent past.
Over the Tavern takes place in upstate New York in 1959. Based on author Tom Dudzick’s own childhood, the play focuses on a short period in the lives of the Pazinski family, mother Ellen (Krystal Jakosky), father Chet (Greg Winkler), daughter Annie (Montana Lewis) and sons Eddie (Beau Wilcox), Georgie (Ben Neufeld) and Rudy (Peter Cabrera). Chet owns and runs the tavern above which the family lives. Ellen is the period-appropriate stay-at-home mom, and the kids (except for the “retarded” Georgie) all attend the local Catholic school, St. Casimir’s.
The primary conflict in the play is between Rudy and Catholicism, as represented by Sister Clarissa (Marian Bennett), the knuckle-rapping nun charged with training Rudy for his Confirmation. At 12 years old, the precocious Rudy cleverly questions the tenets of the Catholic faith and in so doing butts heads with Sister Clarissa. This leads to many laugh-out-loud pronouncements by Rudy, including his intent to “shop around” the various other religious options. Though the other characters, particularly Rudy’s dad and sister, also travel dramatic arcs, Over the Tavern is Rudy’s show and happily so.
For most younger people today — let’s say teenagers on down — 1959 might as well be the Triassic Period. That’s what makes Cabrera’s performance that much more amazing. Whether he’s cheekily debating the rationality of a belief system based on “Follow the arbitrary rules or invisible daddy in the sky spank!” or impersonating Ed Sullivan so well that Rich Little (Frank Caliendo?) would go green with envy, Cabrera makes you believe it’s 1959. He owns the stage like a veteran of the boards. From his facial expressions and body language to his timing and intonation, this kid has some serious acting chops. At a mere 11 years old, Cabrera already shows tremendous promise, and I predict that if he continues to perfect his craft we’ll be hearing his name many more times in the future.
While the entire cast deserves praise, particularly Jakovsky as Rudy’s loving and put-upon mom and Bennett as the old-school, crusty nun, the one actor who really gives Cabrera a run for his money is Greg Winkler. Winkler, who shares an unusual and compelling connection to both the playwright and the source material itself, doesn’t play Rudy’s father; he is Rudy’s father. In a less-than-sympathetic role for most of the play, Winkler shows great range and exceptional dramatic command. As with Cabrera, I would welcome the opportunity to see him perform again.
Over the Tavern triumphs so completely that I genuinely hope that LTC or some other local theatre group decides to put on King o’ the Moon and The Last Mass at St. Casimir’s, the two sequels to Tavern, sometime down the line. It would be a boon if Cabrera and Winkler could reprise their roles, but if they can’t then their replacements will have some mighty large shoes to fill.
Over the Tavern, presented by Longmont Theatre Company, 513 Main St., Longmont, continues through Feb. 9. Tickets are $15-$17. For information, call 303-772-5200 or visit www.longmonttheatre.org.