There has been a heartening trend in the last five years or so, thanks to small theatrical groups in Salt Lake City and elsewhere in the state who have been enterprising in pop-ups, site-specific productions, outdoor venues and places where a proscenium is unnecessary. There have been productions in retail spaces such as a chocolate shop, yoga studio or cafe. Others have taken place in grassy areas on the City Library plaza or with stops on a tour through downtown venues, indoors and outdoors. Some productions involved scenes in tiny rooms that could accommodate only one or a small handful of audience members at a time.
With a dearth of small performing spaces and affordable black box settings that could accommodate the unique intimacy and natural ambience of chamber theater, many individuals have been ingenious in fostering a contemporary salon community while cultivating a new wave of creative spaces for Salt Lake City’s impressively deep bench of performing arts talent.
The newest addition is Meanwhile Park, a splendid project by Jeff Paris, who has created a professional theatrical space to produce top-quality works in the backyard of his Salt Lake City home.
A stellar benchmark has been set with the world premiere of From June to August, a one-act romantic comedy by Matthew Ivan Bennett and directed by Jason Bowcutt. With four actors, this chamber theater rom-com is witty, sensitive, realistic and intelligently sentimental. Bennett’s play was chosen from 57 submissions, for this unique outdoor theatrical experience.
Bennett, a prolific Utah literary figure, has written in different genres, including short plays, evening-length productions, a passel of Radio Hour episodes for the collaboration between Plan-B Theatre and KUER-FM’s RadioWest show, and, more recently, screenplays. While he has written comedy in short form, Bennett has been looking to finesse his chops in this genre, on a more extensive scale. Hence, when Paris opened up a juried commission cycle for the inaugural Meanwhile Park production, Bennett found the ideal opportunity, given the extensive list of prompts that Paris identified for the playwriting competition. For judging, Paris established a reading committee to review the submissions, with members Jerry Rapier, Kelly Hindley, Jill Bumgardner and Kasey Sanderson.
Indeed, this is easily Bennett’s lightest, most playful script to date. But, he also manages — with his usual supreme skill — to anchor the story and dialogue in intelligent, mature realities. Certainly, the quartet of actors gleefully romped through this little summer gem.
The clever title’s theatrical promise is damn good for the narrative structure. The narrative centers on individuals who are middle age, a demographic usually overlooked in the rom-com genre. June (Brenda Hattingh Peatross) is a divorcée who still feels the painful stings of her breakup with a serial cheating husband while August (Josh Richardson) is a widower who is still figuring out how to move from grief and mourning back to a social scene. Both have supportive sidekicks who provide much of the comic fodder: Harley (Tamara Howell) and Hamer (Calbert Beck). It is encouraging to see that youthful energy remains important to these characters.
Bennett’s setup is rock-solid credible, as expected. The couple’s first encounter ends up with both yelling for help because they are being attacked by each other. Apparently, during rehearsals, concerned neighbors who heard the cries for help, called the police, believing that the incident was actually happening.
Bennett hits on all of the elements that make a successful rom-com story. It is a genre built almost entirely on clichés about romance but it also lends itself well to writers who understand that practically anything is fair game in the genre. June and August are gentle and lovable and their first encounter, while not entirely cute in the conventional sense, precisely satisfies that even in potentially disastrous consequences, the moments can end up to be charming and amusing. Likewise, both principals — one divorced, the other a widower — endure troublesome complications that will push them together and pull them apart, setting up the test to find out whether or not their relationship could work. There are excellent moments regarding this specific element in From June to August.
With Howell as Harley and Beck as Hamer, the production excels in the sidekick marker that makes for a great rom-com. Both are loyal and lovable, as well as blunt and hilarious in navigating their respective challenges. They deftly demonstrate why sidekicks are essential to successful rom-coms, or otherwise the rom-com loses the finely drawn balance critical to this genre.
In the outdoor setting of Paris’ perfectly built theater, the production rides the sounds and the visions of a late July evening that amplify the script’s summery mood better than what might be experienced in an indoor theater. The play starts after the sun has set, and by the middle of the action, audience members can glimpse the bright moon rising behind the trees, feel the gentle breezes as temperatures retreat from the daytime nineties and listen to the gentle noises of summer insects or to an occasional roar of a motorcycle on a nearby thoroughfare. The emotional counterpoint of fun and games, along with the moments when a budding romance seems jeopardized and then the gently crafted epiphany appears, feel wholly appropriate in this backyard theater.
The event, which is open to individuals 21 and older, is sold out for its remaining performances, although interested individuals can be placed on a waiting list by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Ticket holders are invited to a pre-performance party, beginning an hour before the play starts. Each ticket holder receives a snack package, prepared by Elizabeth’s Catering, along with a choice of wine, beer and nonalcoholic beverages. Also, a cocktail called the Rom-Comllins is a riff on the traditional Tom Collins, prepared with High West bourbon, citrus and soda with a “sweet kiss.”
Rounding out the production team are Holly Fowers (associate director), Emily Kitterer (stage manager), Lee Hollaar (lighting), Steve Hansen (graphic design) and PJ Kelsch (costume designer).
In summary, From June to August is a smashingly good launch for a new venue that will become a platform for outstanding chamber theater. For more information, see the Meanwhile Park website.