Riverside’s ‘ROAR!’ deftly directed and designed, with wonderful performances


Riverside Theatre — through Mar. 13

Andrew Mehegan in Riverside Theatre's 'ROAR!'
Andrew Mehegan in Vishesh Abeyratne’s “The Procrustes Pitch,” part of ‘ROAR!’ Photo by Riverside Theatre.

Riverside’s annual monologue show, formerly Walking the Wire, has been repackaged as ROAR! this year. Along with the new name, director Sam Osheroff has made some tweaks to the show’s format. This allows Riverside to pack a lot of theatre into a small space, while keeping with the tradition that we’ve grown used to: original monologues delivered by familiar faces.

The first thing one notices when walking into the space is the set. It’s a subtle difference — a backdrop panorama of a woman roaring attached to some platforms — but it is a set, and it gives the solo performers levels to play on. Small set pieces and props are brought on during some monologues, giving the sense of a greater world while still keeping a minimalist feel. This feels like a departure from previous shows in the series, which were typically performed on a bare stage, which can be a bit visually bland even if the acting is great.

The other big change is that many of the pieces are shorter, or are broken up into shorter pieces. Some, such as “Addiction” (written by Anthony Gray Finocchiaro, performed by Rip Russell) and “Pants on Fire” (written by Thomas Misuraca, performed by Robyn Calhoun) are quite short indeed: they get in, establish a character, twist the premise, and before you know it we’re off to the next bit. Other pieces are broken up into beats and progress in between other pieces, such as “Hole in the Wall” (written by Mackenzie Jahnke, performed by Robyn Calhoun) and “The Procrustes Pitch” (written by Vishesh Abeyratne, performed by Andrew Mehegan). The resulting feel is one of a show that flows really smoothly, visits a lot of places in a short time and has many ups and downs. The choice is a smart one, because it makes the best use of this wide variety of interesting scripts.

Rob Cline in Riverside Theatre's 'ROAR!'
Rob Cline in his monologue “Critical Response,” part of ‘ROAR!’ Photo by Riverside Theatre
One piece that repeats throughout both acts is Rob Cline’s “Critical Response” (written by Cline himself). Cline, a local theatre critic, places himself onstage and periodically pipes up to review the audience. It’s a simple but endearing device, and Cline plays it well. He’s at ease interacting with the audience, calling out noted members of the crowd by name and poking light fun at them. Later in the show, the gag continues, but it gets more philosophical. Cline muses on the nature of audience response, from laughter to stunned silence to the question of whether not a show receives a standing ovation. Peppered between the punchlines are real questions about what it means that we still have a form of art that is so in-person and social.

Equally smart and funny is Ann Magaha’s “Selling Persephone,” performed with charm and wit by Claire Winkleblack. The titular character is placed in the modern Ozarks, enjoying an idyllic existence until she is whisked away by a greasy developer to live in suburban Hell. (“I should have known he was a cement man,” quips Persephone, “but I was putty in his hands.”) Surrounded by wasteful Republican men and their repressed housewives, she decides to shill her own fragrance to keep herself occupied. The writing is quite layered; the storytelling is clear, the wordplay is delightful — the wry political commentary comes fast and hard — and the overarching device is quite appropriate: the raping and pillaging of the land for profit is a perfect parallel to the original story of Persephone’s abduction. (I never knew fraccing could sound so dirty). Winkleblack really owns this material onstage, and she’s a joy to watch. She’s very vocally clear and all the many bits of verbal humor land. She also imbues the character with both the power and the vulnerability one would expect from such an iconic name. This reviewer hopes the young Winkleblack will continue to grace Riverside’s stage in the future.

Chris Okiishi in Riverside Theatre's 'ROAR!'
Chris Okiishi in his “Johnson Co. Death Trap,” part of ‘ROAR!’ Photo by Riverside Theatre.
A somewhat more veteran performer to the monologue series is Chris Okiishi, who performs his own “Johnson Co. Death Trap.” This starts off as a cross between a joyride and a revenge fantasy: A gay community theatre producer decides to teach some kids a lesson, and chases down a homophobic slur with an intimidating arsenal of prop weapons. Okiishi’s writing itself is a wild ride; he’ll be seemingly meandering down an innocent lane commenting on some facet of our culture, when out of the bushes will jump a hilarious (if slightly dirty) punchline. The piece is paced excellently and played with joy and confidence; he has us gleefully along for the ride until the last minute, when the piece suddenly takes a harepin turn and gets dark (well, if a monologue about a middle-aged man chasing redneck kids with a shotgun full of blanks could get darker). The serious ending is a great payoff to this piece, especially as the last leg of the journey has the same piercing insight into human behavior as the rest. The whole thing is played for real, so when it’s funny it’s really funny and when it’s uncomfortable it’s really uncomfortable. This was, for me, the best moment of the show.

If ROAR! can be said to lack anything, it’s consistency in the quality of scripts. Most of the writing was clear, concise and excellently crafted, but a bit of it was overwrought and predictable, or at least unfocused. Obviously a lot of this is going to come down to taste — when you have such a broad selection of genres and tones you aren’t going to please everybody — but I felt, for example, that G. D. Kimble’s “The Simple Joys of Exact Change” set a higher bar in terms of originality of premise than Daniel Guyton’s “The Resignation.”

What I can’t by any means take issue with is the acting. Regardless of what script they were given, all these actors bring the type of skill and commitment to the stage that grabs the audience’s attention and keeps it. Though everyone gave a great performance, Aaron Weiner deserves special mention here. His physical and vocal work in Robin Rice Lichtig’s “Rip of Skin,” and in the aforementioned “The Simple Joys of Exact Change,” is riveting to watch. Weiner’s energy simply sizzles; it seems at once boundless and yet carefully focused. In “Skin” he portrays some sort of birdlike monster that preys on our grief. The way he uses both his body and the levels of the stage to both draw in and unnerve the audience is perfect for this piece. Additionally, the vocal gymnastics required by this eerie gothic poem of a monologue are nothing to sneeze at. In “Exact Change” he’s a bit more normal but still just as fun — an overbearing customer lecturing the fast-food cashier about the wondrous opportunities America provides. His exuberant passion combined with his wild mannerisms suggest that this guy doesn’t have it as together as he says, and the entire piece is comic gold. Weiner is always very specific with his physical choices and that makes him fascinating to watch in a variety of contexts.

The new ROAR! is a great night of theatre. If you were a fan of Walking the Wire, you should definitely check out this incarnation. If you’ve never heard of the series before, this is a perfect time to check it out. ROAR! runs through Mar. 13 at Riverside Theatre, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $12–30.

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