Thursday, January 16, 2003

Laughs and lattes: Triple Espresso entertains and energizes

Published in the Portland Phoenix

When Carole Harris, Portland Stage Company’s marketing person, spoke to her counterpart in Albany, NY, after Triple Espresso ran there, Harris was surprised to learn that the Albany theater had to tighten the bolts on the theater’s seats after each night’s performance: Audiences really did laugh that much, Harris was told. And now the wrenches are at work in PSC’s theater, because people in Portland are literally laughing the bolts right out of their chairs.

It’s fitting, because, in many ways, the three-man comedy/variety show, now playing in cities around the US, got some of its earliest beginnings not far from Portland’s stages.

In mid-January, 1975, a young performer arrived at Tony Montanaro’s mime school in South Paris, to spend three weeks learning the basics of mime. While there, Bob Stromberg met Michael Cooper, now a world-traveling mime and maskmaker based in Farmington, and the pair started an act that swept New England schools in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Stromberg considers that success as the seeds — the coffee beans, if you will — that were ground, blended, heated, and stirred into Triple Espresso. But where he is today, Stromberg said, was “an inconceivable dream” back then.

When, in 1995, Stromberg met again with some old showbiz friends and decided to write a show combining Stromberg’s own physical-comedy skills with the musical and magical talents of his friends, Michael Pearce Donley and Bill Arnold, a show was born. It was a mix of all their skills and showcased each in the narrative structure of three men reminiscing about the shows they did, together and individually, years in the past. It also raised the issues of their own dreams and youthful antics, seen through the wiser eyes of middle age.

The show opened in Minneapolis in 1996 for a six-week run and then went to San Diego, where a blazing run commenced, including an early stretch where every seat sold out for 11 weeks straight. It’s still playing there. Faced with a scheduled run in Florida, the original three, now known among the cast as “the guys,” held a set of hurried auditions for three men to play characters “the guys” had originally based on themselves.

The auditions were tough. To get selected, actors had to induce laughter in the audience least likely to be amused: the men who wrote the show. “If you’re not laughing, it’s not working,” Stromberg said. Actors also had to follow direction well, to get more nuance into the performance and pack the show with intense comic energy.

Now there are about 20 actors trained to play the three roles in Triple Espresso, and Stromberg, who thought he would have tired of the show long ago, continues to discover new material. “We’re not even close to getting bored with it,” he said.

The actors playing the roles at PSC certainly keep things fresh. Peter Breitmayer, Patrick Albanese, and Rob Elk are enjoying playing the roles originally created by Donley, Arnold, and Stromberg, respectively. “Everybody’s consistently wanting the show to be better,” said Breitmayer before an evening performance. Accidents happen during the performances, leading actors to discover new comic moments. “There’s a piece of all of us in the show,” said Albanese.

Their pieces, and those of their colleagues not on Portland’ stage, are amusing audiences here. The performance skills of all three actors are strong. While they perform what may be considered old standards (a magician moving a knot from one rope to another, a lounge singer playing Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” or a folk-singer’s ill-fated sing-along with students), the energy and self-awareness are what brings this show its spark.

There are specific highlights, including what must be the most unusual interpretive dance ever performed to classical-style music, a slow-motion slapstick routine to “Chariots of Fire,” and an elaborate shadow-puppet drama. But the audience brings a variable to this show unlike any other. Aside from a couple of members of the audience brought on stage, unsuspecting people are selected each show to play a role in the storyline. The depth of their involvement depends largely on their personalities, and can liven up a variety of scenes.

Elk is wary, though he might not need to be. “I have a thing,” he said. “I never bring a guy up on stage who’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt.” So be warned.

One last thing — the promotional material asks one question over and over: “What did three guys do in four minutes that got them barred from showbiz for life?” I won’t tell you, but it has to do with six pieces of orange paper. You figure it out.

If you don’t catch it this time, or want to see it again, be aware that PSC is talking about bringing the show back — with Bob Stromberg himself as Bobby Bean — in the summer, when the theater is usually dark. Watch this space for updates.

Triple Espresso: a highly caffeinated comedy

Written by Bill Arnold, Michael Pearce Donley, and Bob Stromberg. Directed by William Partlan. With Patrick Albanese, Peter Breitmayer, and Rob Elk. Portland Stage Company, through Jan. 26. Call (207) 774-0465.