POPCORN FALLS (Walnut Street): Ups and downs and non-stop surprises

Dan Olmstead as Mr. Trundle and Luke Bradt as Mr. Doyle in POPCORN FALLS. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Back in college, my two best friends and I used to sit in my dorm room or the student commons and read plays out loud—mostly Shakespeare, sometimes Sophocles or Tennessee Williams. Divvying up fifteen or so parts between the three of us, we would distinguish the characters by giving the women piping falsettos and playing the citizens of Messina, Italy, with truly awful Southern accents or Scottish brogues.

Popcorn Falls succeeds when it revels in a similar kind of ridiculousness, not taking itself seriously. With only a cast of two actors, some carefully-chosen props, and a big chalkboard, it tells the story of the eponymous town of Popcorn Falls over 90 sometimes-frenetic minutes. 

The town will be doomed to dry up like its namesake waterfall if the new mayor, played by Dan Olmstead, and the handy janitor, played by Luke Bradt, can’t put on a play by the end of one week to win a large check. The playwright’s attempts to pull our heart strings, unfortunately, drag the script down, but the show still made me feel I could laugh my stress away for a while. 

Dan Olmstead as the mayor, Mr. Trundle, spends most of his time playing the straight man—easier said than done. Watching Luke Bradt, who plays most of the twenty-something characters, I felt like trying to figure out how a stage magician does his tricks. I just blinked, and suddenly a different character appeared on the stage. At other times, he pulled out three different characters at once, all arguing with each other: the amputee lumberyard owner angrily waving his empty sleeve, the over-sexed middle school teacher gesticulating with her cigarette holder, and the crazy cat lady librarian blinking through her rhinestone-bedecked glasses. 

The costume design by Mandy Boandl makes these sleight-of-hand tricks possible through well-chosen details. In a different way, the cozy set by scenic designer Laura Revelt also comes with its own chameleon quality, evoking a schoolroom full of dusty books, a kitschy diner, and your grandpa’s attic by turns. 

Popcorn Falls enjoys not so much breaking the fourth wall as painting on it, winking at the audience, relying on the artificiality of theater to tell a story. You can hear this winking in the sound design by John Kolbinski, full of moments like blasting Dies Irae as Mr. Trundle and Joe the janitor frantically scramble around the set, or introducing the cartoonishly evil Mr. Doyle with the famous opening measures of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Together with the sound, the lighting design by Sasha Anistratova enhances the madness of this play, especially when it blares police-car red or blue during dramatic moments.

Popcorn Falls’ biggest flaws mostly come from the script by James Hindman. The actors have to struggle past clunky writing. The play clearly wants to do two things—first, present a rowdy comedy full of lowbrow humor, stereotypical characters, and the inherent comedy of crossdressing in a heteronormative society, and second, offer an earnest love letter to small town people and the power of theater—and it can only do one of those. 

Most of the citizens of Popcorn Falls represent overwrought and frankly outdated stereotypes, not human beings painted with respect or affection. The play’s earnest scenes falter and sometimes fall flat. It’s a credit to Bradt and Olmstead, and the direction of Ellie Mooney, that they inject the inescapable romantic subplot with a surprising amount of chemistry. 

In possibly the best of the “serious” scenes, Bradt as Becky the waitress describes being taken on a class field trip to a misguided rock musical version of Romeo and Juliet, only for the production to go wrong in all the best ways. Maybe it’s this scene, a tribute to theater stripped to its essentials, that reminded me of my college friends and I reading Much Ado About Nothing on my couch. I miss those evenings. 

Now, where do I find someone in Philadelphia to read a play with me? 

[Walnut Street Theatre, Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street] March 5-29, 2020; walnutstreettheatre.org

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