New Circa comedy a frenetic, funny farce

Posted Online: July 30, 2014, 9:52 am
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By Jonathan Turner,
Circa '21's world premiere of Jim Hesselman's farce "Love, Lies, and the Lottery" is fast-paced, frenetic and fantastically funny.

Mild-mannered Peter Oostendorp (who works in extermination and pest control) is in the midst of selling his house and getting a divorce, when his life is turned upside down another way -- he discovers he has a year-old winning lottery ticket for $510 million that must be claimed within a week. He apparently has a few more pests to take care of.

Peter (the dependably deadpan, winning and relatable Marc Ciemiewicz) is living with his 82-year-old Norwegian mother, Beatrice, who has a new, 87-year-old boyfriend, and is getting more "action" than Peter is. Activities in the bedroom (and bathroom) are frequent themes of this ridiculous, hilarious farce.

Bea (a dominating Janet Brucken) is dotty, quirky, devious and exceedingly colorful -- seemingly related to the lovable, wacky "Church Basement Ladies" that Circa audiences flock to so much (the "Last Potluck Summer" is one of the shows planned for next season).

Bea starts off hard of hearing and dependent on her walker to get around. Pretty soon, she seems much more ambulatory (only needing a cane), and no hearing problem at all. The use of walkers is inconsistent in the show, but who expects logic and rationality in a madcap, breakneck wonder such as this?

Mr. Hesselman, who previously had his debuting gospel musical "Sing, Hallelujah!" produced at Circa, also directs with precision and affection, leading his cast in and out of the set's six doors. In addition to Circa's recent run "Fiddler on the Roof" (which also had Mr. Ciemiewicz in the lead), Mr. Hesselman's other directorial credits here include the musicals "Legally Blonde," "Nuncrackers," "Hairspray," "Peter Pan" and "Smoke on the Mountain."

In his program notes (from the playwright and director), the genial, 54-year-old Milwaukee native writes that missing millions of dollars due to losing a tiny piece of paper became his second biggest fear, next to being buried alive. He always wanted to write a comedy "which had no loftier goal than to make people laugh," he says, and boy, he succeeds.

With these eccentric Midwestern characters (based in his home state), Mr. Hesselman's humor is often of the lowest common denominator, but it's sharply observed, smartly written and free of profanity.

One of Bea's many one-line zingers, defending aging losses, is they're "God's plan for keeping marriages together -- guys don't see the drooping, and girls don't hear the pooping." She met boyfriend Alfred (an endearing Brad Hauskins) at an early-bird special; Bea calls him one of those "ROMEOs -- retired old men eating out."

Martin (a spot-on Tristan Taspcott) is the nebbishy, frazzled neighbor and lawyer to Peter, drawing up divorce papers and his will. Peter says in frustration, he didn't know how his Dad afforded Bea -- and she responds, "I married him for the sex and divorced him for the money. Neither one lasted very long."

Bea's addicted to the Home Shopping Network, and makes a fateful choice to buy a year's supply of an erectile dysfunction drug -- Niagra ("a natural way to keep a man up all night") -- for Peter. Thoughtful, huh? The commercial promises, "By the time Niagra falls, you'll feel like you've been on your second honeymoon."

The pills -- mixed up by characters throughout the play -- are a frequent source for many of the show's laughs and misunderstandings. When Peter discovers the winning lottery ticket, all bets are off for each character to devise a plan for the winnings. It's not the warm and fuzziest family. In fact, it's hard to see the affection the mother and son have for each other.

Ex-wife Rachel is the most ruthless, plotting and scheming of them all, and Tamarin Ythier plays the unlikable, disdainful shrew to the hilt. What did Peter see in her in the first place? She clearly doesn't care about him.

Bootlegger Brad Hauskins is priceless as the octogenarian, horny Alfred, and the sight of him and Bea meeting up, walkers wheeling toward each other, is wonderful. Mr. Hesselman's clever wordplay extends to Bea not wanting to take Alfred's last name when they marry, because she would then be "Bea Otch."

Misheard conversations about plumbing, squirrel extermination and other topics send things spiraling out of control. In the second act, when Rachel hires a psychic to find the lottery ticket (and both Peter and Alfred cross-dress to impersonate said psychic), the story gets especially crazy and entangled.

Mr. Ciemiewicz plays his green-skirted psychic as an echo of Mrs. Doubtfire, and gets to take his frustrations out on Martin. Mr. Hauskins is quite a sight in a belly-dancer's pink outfit (from a class he and Bea took together, what?). Boosted from his Niagra, Alfred thinks Peter/Harriet is Bea, and he makes his move. Much awkwardness and hilarity ensue. (A bit of the "I Dream of Jeannie" theme music is oddly appropriately in this section.)

Martin also dresses as Bea and and Bea dons a disguise as Rachel, and for the life of me, I can't recall why. But who cares -- all in good fun.

Icing on the delicious theatrical cake is the appearance of another gift from Bea, ordering a comely phone-sex worker, who Martin found on TV. (I didn't know they made house calls!)

Erin Clark is an eyeful as the lovely Lisa, for whom no one would need Niagra. James Fairchild perfectly rounds out the cast in two small, but key roles, as the Packers-loving plumber, and the orderly who comes to take Bea to a rest home, but scores a satisfying twist at play's end.

If you go

What: "Love, Lies, and the Lottery."
When: Through Sept. 6; Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 7:45 p.m., Sunday at 5:45 p.m., and Wednesday matinees at 1:30 p.m.
Where: Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.
Tickets: $49.12 for the evening dinner-and-show productions and $43.37 for the plated-lunch matinees, available at the Circa '21 ticket office, 309-786-7733, ext. 2, or at

NOTE: Bring in your losing lottery ticket for a chance to be a winner. Circa '21 will draw one losing lottery ticket at each performance for a chance to win a dinner and ticket to the next show -- "Funny, You Don't Look Like a Grandmother."


Local events heading

  Today is Wednesday, Oct. 1, the 274th day of 2014. There are 91 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: It is rumored in the streets that the 13 negroes sent to Quincy on the Moline quota were refused. We think this must be a mistake.
1889 -- 125 years ago: Harvey McKenna, of Detroit, billiard player matched to play Wizard Schafer in New York in January for the world championship, was a professional friend and manager, Billy Catton in Rock Island.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Levi Cralle, former Rock Island county sheriff, had come from his farm near Mitchell, S.D. to visit friends in the city.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Work is being rushed on the new high school building in Orion to replace the one destroyed by fire last winter. Classes are being held in churches.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Rehearsals for the 84th season of the Handel Oratorio Society chorus will begin at 7:30 p.m. Monday on the stage of Centennial Hall, Augustana College.
1989 -- 25 years ago: The Rock Island City Council's plan announced this week to have the federal government vacate Valley Homes public housing and move residents to Arsenal Courts to reduce density may not be feasible.

(More History)