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Center Stage

Doubling down on caucus comedy

2/3/2016

The use of  the house from “American Gothic”  in Tim Wisgerhof’s flexible set for “Caucus: The Musical!” suits the season, doesn’t it? Every four years, the Heartland goes Broadway. But this winter, when the media spotlight gets too bright, Des Moines offers two splendid escapes:  “Caucus!,” a revue by local Renaissance man Robert John Ford, and “Hillary,” subtitled a “tragedy” but in fact tart and giggly.

“Caucus! The Musical.” Epic Stage Productions, Stoner Theater. www.robertjohnford.com. Feb. 3-5, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. “Hillary: A Modern Greek Tragedy...” Tallgrass Theater. www.tallgrasstheater.org. Feb. 5-6 and 12-13, 7:30 p.m.

“Caucus! The Musical.” Epic Stage Productions, Stoner Theater. www.robertjohnford.com. Feb. 3-5, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
“Hillary: A Modern Greek Tragedy…” Tallgrass Theater. www.tallgrasstheater.org. Feb. 5-6 and 12-13, 7:30 p.m.

Ford’s piece has become a regular event since its first read-through in December 2003.  Each caucus demands fresh material while sticking with the story of a farm family besieged by White-House wannabes. The 2016 version offers a passel of fresh bits. Most have to do with a candidate named Ronald Blunt, a mega-rich egomaniac in a frothy toupee. Sound familiar? In the role, Greg Millar rightly goes over the top. During the hilarious number “I Need That Man,” he leaps up on a table and lounges across it like beefcake.

The energetic choreography is another upgrade. The stage can suggest a gym full of young athletes flinging themselves around. The choreographer was Alison Shafer, also the director, but dance captain Sarah Hinzman clearly contributed. Hinzman has to keep spinning out of Blunt’s clutches, yet her moves come across as witty rather than desperate. The entire ensemble finds the sweet spot. When Pernell Ferguson sings, he combines clowning and preaching, and it’s no surprise that the show has attracted international media attention.

As for “Hillary,” the story naturally lacks the zaniness of Ford’s. Wendy Weiner’s script, first staged Off-Broadway in 2008, follows the biography of the title character, in particular her bumpy ride with husband Bill. Still, Weiner milks the life for laughs, putting Hillary at the center of a tug-of-war between Greek goddesses.

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As the warrior Athena, Lyra Halsten swaggers imperiously, “flashing-eyed” like it says in “The Odyssey.” Ayriel Everett’s Aphrodite, however, can steal a scene simply kicking back with a canny smile. The love-goddess knows what you really want. She knows you can’t wait until she calls in her worst weapon: “Monica!”

Compared to those two, Amanda Julson as Hillary and Eric Olson as Bill must play it relatively straight. Still, the comedy needs no supernatural help when Hillary’s downstage speaking on women’s rights and her husband’s upstage getting serviced by the intern in the blue dress. Julson has the harder job, since her feminism must ring true. But while Bill is more of a clown, Olson conveys both his torment and his randiness.

Emily Davis pulls off the same as Monica, and she’s a standout in other brief turns, as well as in the tunic-clad “Chorus.” Director Stacy Brothers keeps everybody in motion across Tom Perrine’s open set. The changing backdrops suggest the confusing present, and against those shadows out of antiquity get off timeless jokes: what fools these mortals be! Especially at Caucus time!

Overheard in the Lobby: At Civic Center, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Murder,” a multiple Tony winner, continues through Feb. 7. CV

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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