Troupe tackles tricky play with “Spirits”

Troupe tackles tricky play with “Spirits”
Wait! Don't hang up! From left, Jason Compton, Laura Paulson and Sam O'Reilly fundraise as Ariel, The Ocean and the Untangler in Left of Left Center's production of Spirits to Enforce.

They should be out there protecting the city from evil, or at the very least high-fiving over their first-ever victory over Professor Cannibal. Instead, The Pleaser, Memory Lass, The Untangler, The Bad Map and the rest of the D-list superheroes in the, um, mighty Fathom City Enforcers are glued to their phones in a forty-eight-hour fundraising marathon, trying to raise money for …

… a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Or at least their secret identities are. That’s the premise of Chicago-based playwright Mickle Mahler’s oddball Spirits to Enforce, a play Madison’s Left of Left Center theater group will be staging over the next few weeks, in locations in Madison, Middleton, Oregon and Sun Prairie. The troupe, which formed last year to perform local playwright Ned O’Reilly’s Beta Blockers for the annual Chicago fringe theater festival Rhinofest, has decided, not unlike Marvel’s Avengers, to stick together and tackle new challenges.

They’ve bitten off a big one with Spirits, which, even though it was written in 2003, capitalizes on pop culture’s current all-consuming obsession with superheroes. Even if the superheroes in question make the cats from “Mystery Men” look like world-beaters. Seriously—their ranks include The Intoxicator, who gets villains drunk, and The Tune, who can whistle a nice melody.

“Not only are they not good,” says Jason Compton, who’ll be playing Emory Lawson, aka the superhero Ariel, (and aka something else as well). “They’re not very dedicated to their job. It’s like they’re saying to the citizens, ‘We’re working on The Tempest—you’re on your own.'”

The plot of Mahler’s play is far from its only clever hook. The script’s a dense and wordy acting obstacle course. The twelve actors in the cast never move from their seats at a long table and only briefly hang up their phones. During most of the play, more than one actor is speaking at a time, which means everyone’s listening and waiting for the word-block cues Mahler’s stitched into his script to begin speaking their next lines. Which might be their end of a desperate fundraising ask or might be a stray line or two from The Tempest itself. It’s a cacophonous and comedic balancing act, and you could easily argue that the actors who perform it may need to develop actual superpowers to get through it without blowing a line or a cue.

“You’re not watching people,” says Compton, who notes that four out of the twelve cast members are former Young Shakespeare Players veterans. “It’s one long Bob Newhart-esque phone sketch.”

The troupe is taking their show on a magical mystery tour of nontraditional performance spaces, starting with a June 5 show at the Goodman Community Center. Other venues include the I’m Board! game store in Middleton June 13, The Firefly Coffeehouse in Oregon June 6, and the Watertower Chophouse in Sun Prairie June 12.

“These are places where we can really take theater to the people,” Compton says. “It’s not to be cute. It’s not that we’re throwing out the conventions of theater.”

Indeed, the play’s design, with a single long table and the group of actors on phones, lends itself well to the intimacy of the spaces the troupe has chosen.

“Every night is like opening night,” says Compton, who notes that all the venue owners have really embraced the idea of hosting live theater. “We are definitely experiencing that pull between ‘Oh, yes, you can definitely play here’ and ‘This is what my playing space looks like?'”

Spirits to Enforce runs through June 14 in a variety of locations, for ticket information/reservations, click HERE.