Med students “knock ’em dead” with Stoppard play

By Tim Michaels

In a crucial moment of the first act in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing,” a character screams, “having all the right words isn’t what life’s about.” The Knock ’em Dead Theatre Company has proved this by showing that it takes not just a good play, but also gifted actors to pull off an amazing production. Even with one of the best-written comedies of the 20th century, the element that truly allows for a successful performance is the actors’ concerted effort to bring the script to life.

The Knock ’em Dead Theatre Company, which is in its second year, was created by medical students at the University of Chicago. The company, composed of undergraduate students in the college and students from the medical school, donates the proceeds of its theater productions to charities. All of last year’s proceeds from its production of Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead” went to research for breast cancer, and this year, the group has chosen the National Multiple Sclerosis Foundation to receive all of the proceeds of “The Real Thing.”

“The Real Thing” is a difficult comedy to attempt, but nevertheless, the group succeeded in producing funny, witty, and powerful performances that are well worth the price of admission. The plot is the complex tale of a playwright, Henry Ibsen (Brian Kilborn), whose marital problems are second only to his writer’s block and his huge ego. With an intricate script that covers the subjects of love, infidelity, passion, art, success and politics, the cast did an amazing job of balancing these themes with the brilliant and sarcastic wit that one finds in all of Stoppard’s plays.

Although the play takes place in England, most actors dropped the English accents, likely because of the difficulty of pulling off an accent while at the same time trying to convey the motives of the characters. However, the blocking and body language of the actors made up for the lack of accents by conveying the subtle yet poignant manner in which the British use humor. Many productions of the same play use more intricate props and sets, but the simplicity in this production worked well, and to the advantage of the actors.

The first act got off to a rough start but pulled through by the end to lead into a much better second act. Although British humor is meant to be subtle, and sometimes even dry, it isn’t always necessary for the actors to be so as well. In order to appreciate the hidden humor in every line of a play of such wit, the audience truly needs to pay attention to the words. Thankfully, the lack of an accent helped to clarify the lines and convey their meanings more effectively. After the first couple of scenes, the acting became much more passionate and lively. For example, one scene in which Annie (Zoë Swenson) leaves her husband Max (first-year Ralph Patrello) is so moving and passionate that it almost brought this writer to tears. The music, which was chosen by director Katherine Bernstein, consist of 1950s and 60s pop, and brilliantly accented the mood and atmosphere of the play.

The acting highlights included Patrello’s rendition of Max, the poor actor whose best friend, Henry, steals his wife. The character of Annie, who is at the center of several infidelities, was also well-acted. Kristin Adams gave a powerful and convincing performance as Henry’s aloof but cunning ex-wife, and the mother of Debbie, their renegade daughter.

The group had very little time to put together an incredibly complex, mature, and detailed play; a whole year would be needed to perfect to the specificity that Stoppard intended. However, by the second act, the show was running much more smoothly, as the quirks and dilemmas of the first act were worked out. The actors’ gestures and verbal expressions were also much more convincing, and the cast seemed to work more as a team. The second act also brought on some new characters whose acting greatly increased the vitality of the show. Although his time on stage was short, Sam Udine–as Swenson’s co-star playing Annie’s lover Billy–was forceful and effective. Derek Tucker, who plays the role of Brodie, a political revolutionary who turns to playwriting to express his radical views, was well cast as a pompous and war-mongering fire starter.

Faced with an incredible task, and armed with a good cause, the Knock ’em Dead theater group has accomplished a great deal with their production. They have managed to wrestle with subjects such as love, the role of art in politics, and infidelity, and to make the audience laugh and be moved at the same time.