First off, folks, you need to reconfigure your schedule for Trust at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. In the only error I’m aware of in the awesomely complicated Cincy Fringe lineup, the two-hour production is listed as 50 minutes.
But find time for it — it’s the most show for the money you’ll come across in this festival. There’s a short intermission after the first 45 minutes, if you must rush off to another offering, but you won't know how it all comes out and I’m not going to tell you.
Part of the fun of Fringe is the slapdash, on-the-fly sense of some productions. Often this is calculated, of course, a screen for serious theatrical smarts. But after several days of such fun and games, it’s a pleasure to walk into a real theater with a generously furnished set waiting for action.
I strongly suspect that some of that furniture is salvaged from earlier ETC productions — I think I know those see-through chairs — but the effect is just fine. Lots of chairs and lamps and little tables can be moved around to meet the script’s needs and fixed areas provide small sets within the large one so that, with a shift in lighting, the next scene follows the last instantly.
The program doesn’t list a set designer, but ETC’s talented Brian c. Mehring is co-director with Shannon Rae Lutz and no doubt is responsible for the ordered disorder. Sound design, vital to a show with two Rock & Roll performers among the characters, has been expertly planned by Nick Koehike, who also operates the sound board.
That well-worn theme — love — is the ostensible subject matter here, but fame and its pitfalls and attractions runs a close second. Dealing with both love and fame, sometimes at second-hand but still with visceral effect, are five characters strongly individualized by the writing (Stephen Dietz, also playwright of ETC’s recently presented Becky’s New Car) and by the actors themselves.
ETC’s Fringe offering is traditionally the chance for the company's acting interns to take the spotlight after a year of mostly behind-the-scenes labor. This year’s crop of interns, two men and four women, slip into Trust as though the playwright had them in mind. Dietz came to Cincinnati to see ETC’s production of Becky’s New Car just when Trust had been selected for Fringe. “The interns got to meet and talk with him, ask him questions, sign their scripts. It was a great day,” Lutz says in an email.
Dietz’s script, sharp and plentifully sprinkled with zingers, presents a Rock star on the up-swing (Stephen Geering as Roy LaBelle) and one on the down-swing (Leah Strasser as Leah Barnett) who connect on more than one level. “First you’re a force, then you’re an influence,” Leah says ruefully. Each conveys a performer’s energy and self-centeredness.
Lauren Shmalo has a fine time with her role as Holly Porter, a dazzled and sometimes dazzling observer of the scene. Christine Fallon’s physical beauty is perfect for prospective bride Becca, and she brings intelligence to the interpretation as well.
Christopher Pitts, in the less showy role of Cody Brown, a local NPR announcer, is rewarded with a virtuoso monologue to open the second act. Kim Rogers, as Gretchen, functions as commenter on others’ actions through much of the play, but she gets her chance at revelation near the end. We’ve got love of all sorts here, often unrequited — plus a scene in which a jilted bridegroom shaves the gorgeous legs of his almost bride with a straight edge razor. The audience holds its collective breath.
Dietz has a habit of bringing his story to what seems to be the end and then going on for a little longer in a direction you might not have seen coming. This works better in Trust than in Becky’s New Car, which had too many elements and went on slightly too long.
Last year the ETC intern company won the “Audience Pick of the Fringe” with the premiere of local playwright Sarah Underwood’s gravesongs. This year’s company appears to have another hit on its hands.
(Get upcoming performance dates and venue details here.)