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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, July 30, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

The cast of Sunset Playhouse's "Over the Tavern."

"Over the Tavern" makes crisis of faith funny


So 12-year-old Rudy Pazinski is having trouble both memorizing the catechism answers and committing to his upcoming confirmation into the Roman Catholic church.

He spends a fair amount of time bedeviling Sister Clarissa, his aging teacher, and talking to Jesus Christ in the darkness of the chapel. He asks Jesus to make Sister Clarissa nicer and to put his father into a good mood when he comes home for dinner, bringing spaghetti from a local restaurant.

"And it seems to me, Jesus, that about the only thing going on in this religion is all these rules," he says, kneeling and with his hands clasped in prayer. "Like that don't-eat-meat-on-Friday thing. I can't believe you came all the way down to earth for something like that."

Rudy's crisis of faith is at the heart of "Over the Tavern" a play by Tom Dudzick that opened a run at Sunset Playhouse Thursday night.

And make no mistake about it. This may be community theater, but this is one funny play and the Sunset cast, under the direction of Brian Zelinski, has enough going that the laughs are quick and hearty. It's a very enjoyable evening of theater.

Some of the jokes may be a little too inside for non-Catholics, but those are rare. Most of the humor, even the Catholic humor, is accessible by everyone, regardless of faith.

While the church provides the laughs, the central theme is really the story of a Polish-Catholic family, complete with strengths and weaknesses that anyone can recognize. There's a father, played by Dustin J. Martin, a wife, played by Stephanie Demyren Smith, an older brother played by Bo Matts, a mentally challenged brother played by Phillip M. Klinker and a sister played by Ellen Sansone. There is also Sister Clarissa, played marvelously by Inge Adams.

The funniest moments come in the tiny classroom tucked into a corner of Chase Stoeger's wonderful set. Stoeger is one of the best actors in this town and his talents as a scenic designer were a surprise.

Sister Clarissa stands with a clicker and a ruler in her hand while Rudy sits at a desk, trying to figure out the catechism. He is driving her nuts.

His answer to the profound question of why God put us on Earth is that "he just wants us to have fun."

When his beleaguered mother asks him to tell her a joke, he turns into every stand-up comic you've ever seen.

"So, Joseph and Mary were settling down for the night before the birth and Joseph started walking around the manger to collect some straw. He stubbed his toe and grabbed his foot. He looked to heaven and shouted, 'Jesus Christ.' Mary rolled over and said, 'That's a good idea for a name.'"

As Rudy, Jacob Badovski is a sparkling treat. He's got spunk and great comedic timing. When his confusion results in a brief flirtation with Judaism and he puts on a yarmulke to visit Sister Clarissa in the hospital and it turns out the yarmulke is made from his old Mickey Mouse hat, it brings tears of laughter to your eyes. He's a kid who does a spot-on Ed Sullivan impression, which his brother loves but everyone else could do without.

As the wimple-clad nun, Adams is an absolute sarcastic delight. She reprimands Rudy with a terse, "Do you think Jesus went around doing Ed Sullivan?"

The other cast members all have moments and they do a nice job.

One problem with the play is that it is over two and a half hours long. That's a long time to be sitting and the director could have done everyone a favor by cutting some of it out. There are moments when this play wanders too far from its heart of humor and it would have been smoother with an editing pen.

But that's a small price to pay for an evening of theater that's full of not just chuckles but real belly laughs.

"Over the Town" runs through March 24 at Sunset Playhouse. Information is available at sunsetplayhouse.com.


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