Stage & Dance

Balagula Theatre's latest presentation veers at audience's whim

Jenny Christian, director of Adventures in Mating, said the play required a lot more practice.
Jenny Christian, director of Adventures in Mating, said the play required a lot more practice. Lexington Herald-Leader

Miranda Jane Walker has asked Jeffrey Pickman the dreaded question. It's the question no man wants to answer for a woman, the one many would self-inflict profound bodily harm to avoid answering: "Does this make me look fat?"

Answer yes, and Jeffrey is a first-class heel who has shattered Miranda's fragile psyche. Say no, and maybe he is not honest enough, in Miranda's mind, to tell her what she thinks is the truth.

For once, Jeffrey doesn't have to decide what to say. The audience will make up his mind for him.

Jeffrey and Miranda are a bizarre couple in Joseph Scrimshaw's Adventures in Mating. It's a new production by Jenny Christian's Lexington-based Lonesome Girl productions that will be presented Sunday to Tuesday by Balagula Theatre at Natasha's Bistro & Bar.

Miranda and Jeffrey are strange in their own rites: She is selecting potential mates with a check-box system and unannounced blood tests. He is a blunt oaf who quotes Star Trek obsessively.

They both have little control over the evening.

"It's sort of like those Choose Your Own Adventure children's books," Christian says, referring to the popular game book series in which the reader becomes the protagonist, making important decisions along the way.

Here, the audience makes those decisions, often as a collective, sometimes as individuals. When moments of truth come, a character called The Waiter strikes a gong and asks the audience to decide the matter at hand, usually by vocal acclamation.

That means the cast has to be ready for anything.

"We probably have practiced this twice as long as we normally would practice a one-hour play," says Christian, the play's director.

At first, they just practiced each scene straight. In more recent weeks, they have changed it up, with crew or rehearsal guests making decisions such as what type of wine the couple will order and which one of them will attempt to seduce The Waiter — all of which have profound effects on the play's outcome.

"I've done improv before, which is kind of like this," says James Hamblin, who plays Jeffrey. "But there it's spontaneous. Here, you have to remember where you are."

At a Tuesday night rehearsal, after one of the decisions had been made, Esther Harvey, who plays Miranda, says, "I had to lean over to James and say, 'Is this the one where we order pizza?'"

In addition to audience participation, the play is extremely localized, thanks to Scrimshaw leaving aspects such as neighborhood names and other elements blank for each production company to fill in. Performed as a restaurant play in a restaurant, the show feels similar to Surprise Theatre, a popular series of shows Balagula presented a few years ago in which plays would erupt during a night of dining at Natasha's.

This show is on a stage and is a little more planned.

But as a result of the decision making, the play can turn out differently each performance. Jeffrey and Miranda can have a successful date, or not. The Waiter, of the highly snotty variety, can have a good evening, or not, although it does seem hard to imagine that quirky Miranda and Jeffrey won't grate on his nerves in some way.

Christian surmises, "If you have ever been in an awkward dating situation or worked in the food-services industry, this is definitely the play for you."

The great news is, the audience won't have to live with any of the tough decisions it has to make.

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