Stage & Dance

Review: Dillinger is a real pants splitter

Danville is a town that remains remarkably tied to its history. Perhaps no institution has contributed more uniquely to preserving the legacy of Danville than Kentucky's oldest outdoor theater, Pioneer Playhouse.

While each brick and wooden beam of the buildings seems to have some novel and fascinating tie to the past (the dinner bell that rounds up pre-show diners comes from Danville's first firehouse, for instance), the playhouse's most consistent contributions to Danville and Central Kentucky are the plays themselves.

Artistic director Holly Hensen frequently slates original work about Danville history in the summer stock theater's seasonal lineup. Often, these original works are penned by Kentucky playwrights.

This season, the troupe's 61st, is no exception.

Playwright Liz Orndorff got the idea to write the current production of The Dillinger Dilemma by reading a column from the 1934 Sunday Advocate that claimed infamous bank robber John Dillinger was spotted in the coffee shop of the Gilcher Hotel, a Main Street establishment located where the The Hub Coffeehouse and Cafe is now.

Orndorff drew inspiration from real-life Danvillians, crafting a history-inspired script full of colorful characters, wildly imaginative speculation and the humorous hoots and hollers that Pioneer Playhouse is known for.

The playhouse has been a family-run venture since its founding by Eben C. "The Colonel" Hensen. So it's fitting that the theater tapped his son Robby Hensen, an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, to direct this debut.

Robby Hensen also pulled double duty as set designer, and the set features an elaborate reproduction of the interior of the presidential suite at the Gilcher Hotel. It is at the hotel that an aspiring filmmaker, Jimmy Lawrence (Daniel Hall Kuhn), arrives with movie star wannabe girlfriend Ethlelene, to swindle some of the local townsfolk into paying $10 each to be featured in a short film.

Lawrence's ploy quickly morphs into an even juicer con when he is mistaken for notorious bank robber John Dillinger. Not much later, the real John Dillinger (Chris Kateff) checks into the hotel under his usual alias — John Lawrence — to secretly visit his granny (Erica Lynn French), who lives in Danville. The pair discover one another's ruse, launching a mistaken identity subplot. Throw in an audition for a bank robbing feature film and characters equally star struck by their discovery of Dillinger and the prospect of being in the movies, and you can probably guess the kind of hilarity that ensues.

A spirited and cohesive ensemble cast proves more than up to the challenge of comically pondering this peculiar anecdote from Danville's history.

Kuhn's character is tasked with carrying much of the show's forward momentum and he excels at setting the pacing of the show with his measured yet dynamic performance.

Kateff brings a mobster's cool and a legend's charm to his role as the real John Dillinger. Katie Sawhill is a bright spot in the production in her role as Ethlelene. Her natural comedic timing is at its most stealthy, and she is effective in her delivery of Orndorff's clever dialogue, which includes Ethlelene's grotesque mispronunciation of French words in a hilarious and pathetic attempt to appear sophisticated. Lawrence, after all, says all great Hollywood filmmakers have French mistresses.

And kudos to Orndorff for creating a new school of thought on minimalist costuming. When Lawrence tries to pass off a particularly bare Russian method of acting to save money on costumes, his hopeful auditioners balk until he concedes to a "modified" version.

Another bright spot in the production was Eben French Mastin's portrayal of "Cruel Daddy" Henson. The real life father of "The Colonel" Henson, Cruel Daddy was a revenue man known for his effective methods of busting up illegal stills and landing rumrunners in jail. Mastin, a 17-year Pioneer Playhouse veteran, is perfect. He embraces the role with relish, highlighted by a literal pants-splitting scene.

The Friday night crowd seemed schizophrenic in its reception of the show. Many audience members, like myself, were easily pulled into the show's spell of cantankerous humor. Others sat there unaffected, their silence palpably absorbing the cast's considerable comedic efforts. Come on, people, lighten up.

All in all, The Dillinger Dilemma is another lithe, significant installment in this unique theater's legacy.