Matt Lyle's "silent films on stage" are tough to pull off. He asks his actors to excel at a style of physical comedy that's evocative of the greats of the silent film era, in which simple pantomime and a passing grade in pratfall doesn't go far enough. It's about relaying emotion, relationships and conflict without the help of dialogue, and with precise but effortless physical movement to bring home the overall comic effect.
Things didn't always go the way that any of the characters Buster Keaton played wanted them to, but the man was able to give us frustration and sadness beyond the universal physical symbols for those emotions (say, exaggerated frown or an overextended sigh), and then lead us right back into side-splitting laughter.
In the mid-2000s, the cast of Lyle's The Boxer pulled off these feats brilliantly for Bootstraps Comedy Theater, because they and the director (Lyle) understood the style of comedy. But sadly, it's lost on those involved with Lyle's The Better Doctor, having its Texas premiere by Upstart Productions in the group's new home at The Nest. This is a warehouse on the hopefully soon-to-be developed west side of the new Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge ("large Marge," as one of the Upstarters called it).
The Better Doctor tells the story of three homeless urchins, Rickets, Slings and Mumps (Nadaha McCullough, Manon McCollum and Lily McCollum, respectively), who can't get medical care for their various ailments. So their friend Velma (Lindsay Bartlett) decides to help by going to the doctor and feigning the symptoms those three have so that she can score prescriptions. She ends up seeing an intern (Ezra Jesse Bookman) who, suffice to say, probably won't ever have his name on an office sign with the "Dr." salutation...ever.
They end up on an adventure to help the sickly threesome that involves the Chief of Medicine (Robert Long, who also plays a judge), an orderly and newsboy (Andrew Aguilar), a pharmacist (Ben Schroth) and a prosecutor (Roth Farrar). Marti Etheridge plays various characters too, including a pregnant woman, secretary and "snooty lady."
There's romance and heartwarming moments beyond commenting on the sad state of American healthcare. And Lyle packs the proceedings with myriad opps for physical comedy gold. Just think of all the comedy and slapstick you've seen on film and TV that happens in a doctor's office, in which patients feel extra vulnerable and bumbling docs can get so many things wrong. Hello reflex hammers and tongue depressors. Also, destitute kids with limps: hilarious! (Think The Little Rascals in various slings and bandages.)
But directors Justin Locklear and Cassie Bann don't capitalize on any of this potential; and most the actors here don't have a knack for this level of physical comedy, Schroth being the exception. Even at just 75 minutes long, it drags. The slapstick isn't nearly as funny or well-timed as it needs to be.
From a design standpoint, though, The Better Doctor is pretty remarkable, with lovely illustrated backdrops (by Isaac, Jerod and Josh Davies), costumes (by Jennifer Madison) and title cards projected on a scrim in front of the actors, all evoking the black-and-white silent film era. There's some nice video accompaniment (by Marc Rouse and Frank Robertson), and a terrific four-piece live band playing original music and providing Foley effects (Wade Cofer, Johnny Sequenzia, Adam Cole and Noah Jackson).
The Nest is an interesting arts space, and what Upstart has done with this empty warehouse—stage curtains cordoning off the theater area, large puppets welcoming guests into the audience chamber, conversation-starting visual art in the lobby area and relatively comfortable seating—is to be commended. And surprisingly, for a warehouse space that's not in the shade, and when the Texas summer is heating up, the place is more than sufficiently air-conditioned.
I can't wait to see how it grows in the coming years, especially in a neglected part of town where growth is starting, as it so often does, thanks to artists. (A few warehouses over is another space that will soon host a theater performance, Dead White Zombies' Flesh World.)
That shiny new bridge that no one seems to be using ought to lead somewhere, right?