Theatre UCF’s production of Reeling, a play by Barry Kornhauser, was impressive in its vision and managed to be quite fun despite the space limitations of the stage in UCF’s Black Box Theatre.
The show pays homage to Buster Keaton, a legendary actor-director from the early days of film. Keaton is widely regarded as one of the best physical comedians of all time, and for good reason. He popularized many ludicrous stunts and gimmicks that enraptured and impressed audiences of the time, many of which have lived on to this day.
Reeling, which runs through Feb. 28, captures the spirit of Keaton’s work with fun, simple characters and conflicts highlighted by several impressive stunts including tumbling, balancing and flips. The set, designed by Vandy Wood, makes much of Reeling’s physical comedy possible by coming apart in surprising ways, not appearing quite as it seems or having unexpected layers or characteristics that add twists to the humor.
Although much of the show’s spectacle was carried out with impressive precision, the show’s vision is probably too ambitious for the stage. Several stunts and situations that occurred in Reeling seemed better suited for the Keaton-esque film in which they seemed to belong, where multiple takes could be shot until everything happened just right rather than onstage where it seems nearly impossible for every single stunt to look good or believable throughout the course of a performance.
Lines of sight were an issue as well. Depending on the viewpoint of each audience member, it can be obvious that some of the staged punches don’t hit their targets or that the performers’ feet don’t really step on the banana peels they appear to slip on.
Regardless of these issues, the performers and their director, Christopher Niess, deserve enormous credit for the impressive array of stunts and outlandish actions that endow the show with a cartoonish charm I had never seen before on the stage. Although it seems exceedingly difficult to capture the essence of a Buster Keaton film in a stage play, the cast and crew of Reeling did the job about as well as anyone could hope to.
Reeling, which mirrors Keaton’s silent films by having no spoken dialogue, tells the simple yet charming story of the Little Fellow (Blaine Edwards) and his attempts to woo his Beloved (Nicolette Quintero). Although the plot is rather straightforward, several obstacles crop up unexpectedly to stand in the Little Fellow’s way, most of which are orchestrated by the mysterious Big Man (Kody Grassett). The forces standing in the protagonist’s way are consistently thrilling and hilarious. The set and props betray our hero multiple times in entirely unexpected ways. Fast-paced changes in the situation are highlighted by witty supertitles projected onto a screen above the stage. Inane chase sequences occur where hordes of hysterically incompetent policemen ramble across the stage.
Some of the best and most humorous moments manage to feel very natural and are often unexpected. Edwards and Grassett do a fantastic job channeling the classic thematic struggle between good and evil without distracting too much from the whimsical nature of the show. Quintero portrays her part with a magical charm reminiscent of silent film stars. The other performers all have hilarious moments and fill the small stage with a diverse array of outsized personalities. In all, I feel Buster Keaton would be quite impressed with the uproarious, charming production.
Alex Storer is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.