Paul Shoulberg’s new play "Reel "at the IU Theatre is an often funny, slightly raunchy, comedy with love as its loosely conceived center. It darkly dissects the desperation of the cast and crew of a failing film. At the heart of the trouble is a key love scene that needs to catch fire, but so far has nery a spark. The set is full of guilt, neediness and ambition, but short on love.
Gordon, the former marquee commanding director, Ross Matsuda, is at his wits end about his failure to come up with an approach or gimmick for love. Nothing seems to work. The studio is threatening to replace him with a whiz kid whose only production credit is a commercial for Sprite.
The Oscar winning lead actor, Alex, is equally stymied about love. He emptily philosophizes in speech after speech. He asks everyone in sight about what it is and how it feels. He’s even tried to start a love affair with his co star, but she wisely has resisted. Mathew Buffalo as Alex manages to present a really nasty, self serving, master of piling phony sincerities upon a foundation of affectations who’s still often likeable.
His co-star Kendra, Malia Tilden, is an innocent to film acting and to her own sexuality. Initially she seems equally clueless about love, but at least she’s in there pitching in scene after scene. Off stage she’s actually finding out a bit about what love means for her with the crusty crack cinematographer Maura, Allison Moody.
Michael Aguirre plays the technician Eli. At first he seems relatively natural and normal, but Eli just out of film school, has high ambitions as a writer and director.
Melanie Derleth is the script-girl Wynne. Wynne really is normal at least as far as a lack of dominating cinema ambitions goes. She’s just working on the set so that she can be nearer to her boyfriend. Eli.
Now the play, "Reel," began to feel more and more like all those movies about putting on plays that we’ve all seen. And the formula from the simplicity of the "Our Gang" comedies to sophistication of "Forty-Second Street" all ends with a happy ending as the solution. "Reel" seemed inexorably headed in that direction. I even found myself making up a couple of likely endings.
Playwright Paul Shoulberg does deliver this sort of conclusion, but with a heavy dose of irony. Eli the aspiring technician rewrites the script. With no new insights, but new words to say, Alex and Kendra are able to act a scene that will at least pass as love. The actors are relieved if not totally jubilant. The director and the cinematographer are happy. Smiles are on all the faces except Wynne’s. She’s the normal one, the only civilian on the set. Wynne sees Eli sucked into an empty world and won’t follow him. She leaves.
Technically, the IU production of "Reel" directed by Jonathan Michaelsen has a high polish.
Hannah Moss’s costumes nicely fit the actors and their roles. The neatest was the sharp look of Alex and the least successful an unaccountable miss with the fitting of Kendra’s dress.
Sean Michael Smallman’s lighting nicely handled the needs of both Chris Wych’s movie set and technical area with Andrew Hopson’s sound design helping to dramatically set the scenes for the film takes.
Paul Shoulberg’s comedy "Reel" is always interesting, frequently funny, and even a bit thought provoking. It plays each evening through Saturday in IU’s Wells-Metz Theatre.
You can find an interview with playwright Paul Shoulberg and actors Melanie Derleth and Mathew Buffalo on our Arts Interviews page .