Penobscot Theatre Company’s world premiere of “Hair Frenzy” is a triumph for Orono playwright Travis G. Baker, thanks to fine directing and an impeccable cast.
In case there were doubters, Baker’s new comedy, which sometimes borders on farce, proves he can hold up a mirror to Mainers’ foibles and idiosyncrasies without being disrespectful. “Hair Frenzy” is a tighter and funnier show than “One Blue Tarp,” produced by PTC two years ago, because it doesn’t try to take on big social issues such as same-sex relationships.
Set in the hair salon from which the play takes its name in the fictional town of Clara, Maine, “Hair Frenzy” is about leaving and coming home, opportunities lost and found and the twists and turns life can suddenly take.
It also is less about “people from away” than “One Blue Tarp” was but includes a clash with local town government over a sign ordinance. As with many new plays, the first act is more polished than the second, but the resolution of the plot rings true and the show is, at times, hysterical.
Much of the credit for the success of the play goes to director Dominick Varney and his fine cast of Maine comedic actors, several of whom are experienced in improvisation. Varney is an expert at pacing a comedy in which the jokes rely more on character than slapstick and at molding a cast into an ensemble.
An experienced actor, Varney knows just when to crank up the action for laughs and when to pause so the audience doesn’t miss a funny line or visual joke. As a director at PTC and other theater companies, Varney can milk and mine the best out of fine, good, mediocre and bad material. With “Hair Frenzy,” he had a solid script to work from.
Varney also expertly cast the show. The actors work so well together that one different person in one part could have spun it out of control and off the rails.
Jennifer Shepard, co-founder of ImprovAcadia in Bar Harbor, plays Tina, the owner of the Hair Frenzy salon and a single mom struggling to raise her daughter and keep her business going. Shepard’s character and performance are the most realistic in the show. Female theatergoers know this woman because they either are her, are related to her or know someone just like Tina. That’s because of the depth Shepard gives the character.
As Toryn, the small-town girl who’s made it big as a movie star, A.J. Mooney gives the character just the right blend of entitled star attitude and and down-to-earth practicality. In portraying Toryn as a survivor, Mooney is able to show the audience that skills and lessons learned in small towns are valuable — even in Hollywood.
Amanda Sinko and Jeri Misler give broad comedic performances as Kaisee and Mrs. Bonner, respectively. Kaisee is the wild and showy stylist who rents a chair in Tina’s shop, and Sinko portrays her perfectly as the big-city woman stuck in a backwater town. Mrs. Bonner is an elderly, retired school teacher who sees Tina once a week but won’t let Kaisee touch her hair. Sinko and Misler play well off each other as Kaisee and Mrs. Bonner spar over changing morals and hairstyles.
Rachel Palmer, who portrays Tina’s daughter Ella, is a natural on stage. She’s comfortable in the part and give a great performance. However, she has a bad habit of fiddling with her costumes — something that’s distracting for the audience.
While all the women are wonderful in their roles, the energy during Saturday’s opening night performance came from Ira Kramer, Brad LaBree and Jason Preble. Kramer, as the Swedish actor Gustav, who follows Toryn to Clara, is magnificent. Sporting a blonde wig, he is almost unrecognizable from roles in previous productions. Kramer’s Gustav behaves like a large, lumbering, egotistical St. Bernard puppy. He is adorable and impossible not to love.
As Bobtom, LaBree creates a character who hasn’t really changed since middle school. His dreams have always been bigger than his talent and his brainpower. In hands of a less skilled actor, Bobtom might have been played as the “village idiot,” but LeBree gives him just enough heart so his faults can be overlooked.
Jason Preble as Stuart could have created a stereotypical uptight accountant or turned him into Tina’s stalker neighbor. Instead Preble, a member of “The Focus Group,” which regularly gives improvisational performances, uses his impeccable timing to make Stuart a loyal, loving fan of Tina’s who always will have her back. The actor knows the value of a pause before a punchline, and he understands that Stuart’s love of and loyalty to Tina are fine qualities — even as she rejects him again.
Chez Cherry’s practical set that Varney’s cast make great use of is complimented nicely by Heather Crocker’s lighting design and Kevin Koski’s costumes.
In a program note, PTC’s Producing Artistic Director Bari Newport described launching the production of a new play as “a risk.” While it might have been one for the director, cast and crew, for area theatergoers, it is a welcome gift.
“Hair Frenzy” runs through Feb. 14 at the Bangor Opera House. For information, call 942-3333 or visit penobscottheatre.org.