LARRY SHUE’S ‘THE FOREIGNER’ OFFERS UP
SOME HILARIOUS SOUTHERN EXPOSURE
A Foreigner has dropped into Foster City with an excellent fast pace production of this Larry Shue classic. This production of the Outer Critics Circle Award winning THE FOREIGNER is now at The Hillbarn Theater through October 22nd. This old fishing lodge in rural Georgia has seen better days, but the bright cast of the Hillbarn company bring this mix of fast pace humor a great fun feel. Hillbarn Theatre production of this winning sit-com is well directed by Brian Herndon. His talented company brings Charlie and all his entourage to 2017, and at times we realize this caper is timeless, and still very funny. A bit about the playwright, Mr. Shue, he died at the young age of 39. Only three of his plays hit the stage including this one and “The Nerd”. It's a wonder what more he had in store for us, but with this hit we get a great look into what Shue could master in comedy.
Shue was poised to make his personal Broadway debut on the eve of his death, he had his greatest days ahead of him. A new Shue play is something one can only wish for. Bay Area favorite Hillbarn Artistic Director, Dan Demers,was under a bit of pressure not to stage this comedy as some theatre companies have removed the play from their season including Spreckels Stage in Rohnert Park Ca. Demers says “While we understand why other theater companies around the nation have cancelled their productions of The Foreigner because of the integral role the Ku Klux Klan plays within the show, the cast and creative team of Hillbarn Theatre’s The Foreigner, along with our staff and Board of Directors, have unanimously decided to proceed with our upcoming production. Our hope is that this production encourages community discussion, inspires personal reflection on the play’s timely themes of identity and otherness—and most importantly, makes the audience laugh.”
The story is simple and in brief, Charlie’s played by Damien Seperi, his marriage is on the blink so he takes a holiday to see a friend in the backwoods of Georgia. His US friend “Froggy” played by the talented Gary Gerber sets him up with a nice hideaway weekend at the fishing lodge. Charlie is not happy staying at this lodge because of his fear of meeting new people and he thinks he is one boring sod. To ease Charlys fears, Froggy tells the Inn owner Betty, played by the adorable Laurie Strawn, that his friend is a “foreigner” and can not speak much English.
Damien Seperi plays the painfully shy Charlie Baker coming out of his shell and winning over the lodge residents. Seperi does an excellent job with his master skills in comic timing and body language. Shue has written in some goofy shtick for his lead and Seperi pulls it off, the HillBarn sold out crowd could not stop their constant giggles especially when he dances. With the con set up now Charlie can remain silent while he meets his new friends and eavesdrops on their conversations. The endearing Betty, and the sister brother team., Catherine, played by the sharp Lauren Rhodes, and the simple minded Ellard, played by the funny and likable Ross Neuenfeldt, are blind to a scheme to steal the lodge.
Grandmotherly landlord Betty, despite giving up her life to maintain and manage the inn, still clings to dreams of overseas travel in exotic locales. So when this “foreigner" arrives, she's beside herself with excitement and does everything she can to make his short stay pleasant. Charlie becomes the ears of the whole household’s secrets. It isn’t long before he becomes embroiled in defeating the plans of an evil preacher played by the dapper Matt Waters and his bigoted thug pal, Owen, played by the fearsome Robert Fairless, whose excessive wicked side hits the play’s quirky black humor to cheat the kindly landlady so they can open a KKK camp on her land.
It is all about the audience falling in love with each of the main cast under Charlie’s charm. Like most comedies you don’t need to think much, the story needs no analysis or subtext - other than the fact we all see a little bit of Charley in all of us. Shue does introduce the locals as naive Southerners who know little of the outside world. Act II kicks into high gear, offering up the show's biggest laughs and most engaging and thrilling moments even at the site of the KKK element.
The supporting cast all have great comic timing and handle the shtick very well. I laughed more during this comedy than a Neil Simon or Woody Allen classic. Strawn is lovely as Betty, Fairless is fearless as the bully clansman Owen, he is very funny as he is torn down by Charlie. Neuenfeldt steals the stage as the dim witted brother who teaches Charlie English; some of the funniest shtick in the play. Rhodes is Ellard’s engaged sister, who sets up some of the better comedy moments. Gerber under the voice direction of Kimily Conkle gives Sgt “Froggy” a crisp English accent and the rest of the cast are pitch perfect in their rural accents.
As always Hillbarn Artistic Director, Dan Demers, brings a talented production team to each of their productions. The clever set designer Gary Keith Wong’s main living space is homey and rustic with small yet terrific details like a lamp topped by a too small shade, wide log wall design depicting a down-at-the-heels inn. Wong’s set can easily become one the characters in THE FOREIGNER, he is a meticulous artist along with Fred Eiras, Scenic Manager for HBT.
The lighting design by John Bernard brings the Inn from night to day with some realism outside the window lighting effects. His designs brace the powerhouse sound design of John DiLoreto’s on going convincing thunderstorm, then a luminous sunrise mellowing into midday, and the ominous glare of torchlight at midnight. Valerie Nishiguchi Bradshaw’s costume and hair designs add humor to the characters and avoid the obvious cliches with that big hair she could have overdone. Props by Rosie Issel are a highlight as you can get lost looking at all the detail on the Inn set, but she brings the best for the English lessons that Ellard teaches Charile, including the wagon full of stones and plants. Stage manager Stephanie Stratman has the task of getting her cast in and out of more that five stage entrances and keeping the storm outside in full rage.
Our Foreigner, Charlie, being the hero that he is sorts everyone needs out neatly. He realizes he can be a life changer in people's lives and he has made a difference in the friends he has just met. Seperi’s comic performance and shtick is excellent and he will win your heart over. Director Herndon’s likeable production attempts to add a contemporary feel by focusing on the issues of immigration as stoked by Trump’s miserable antics. I am not sure anyone would dispute the play’s anti-bigotry message, its premise here serves to change the tone. Up next, Hillbarn Theatre presents our favorite orphan, Annie, for the holidays November 30. Later in 2018, HBT is proud to present the national premiere of the one-man show, When That I Was… that opens in March, 2018. In the meantime do your best to see the final weekend of this comedy romp THE FOREIGNER, after 30 years it still keeps audiences laughing and cheering these likable characters.
The Hillbarn Theatre Presents
By Larry Shue
Directed by Brian Herndon
Featuring; Damien Seperi, Ross Neuenfeldt, Lauren Rhodes,
Gary Gerber, Laurie Strawn, and Matt Waters.
Must close Sunday Oct 22nd
Hillbarn Theatre 1285 East Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City
RUNNING TIME: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Photos courtesy of Mark & Tracy Photography