With a title like "Packer Fans from Outer Space," it would be logical to expect an evening of frivolous fun, much like watching Saturday morning cartoons.
Who would think that a play like this would feature an important message and a tender love story between awfully different young people? Under the deft and gentle hand of Milwaukee’s Molly Rhode, the play pulls you into unusual places, all under the guise of the perennial battle between the Packers and the Chicago Bears.
"Packer Fans" gets a remounting by the American Folklore Theatre in their cozy outdoor space in Peninsula State Park in Door County. The show, written by the team of Frederick Heide and Lee Becker, was last produced over a decade ago.
This team has created such outrageously funny plays like "Belgians in Heaven" and "Guys and Does." "Packer Fans" could well be expected to follow in that same slapstick kind of vein, but it doesn’t, as Rhode finds a heart in this play and puts it on full display with a marvelous cast of actors.
The story focuses on the Kiester family: Harvey, his wife Marge and their teenage daughter Peg. Peg wants to be a scientist, studying intergalactic phenomena and using her knowledge to bring about world peace. Her mom wants her to "find a nice guy and settle down."
Well Peg, who believes the sightings of flying saucers in Door County are true, does meet a man, although whether he’s nice or not is open to question.
The man is "39," one of two Packers from outer space. He, his partner "24" and "Coach" – who wears a coat a lot like Vince Lombardi – have come to earth to take Harvey back so that he can rid the world of the horrible Space Bears. Harvey, you see, is an incredibly devout Packer fans, trapped in a marriage to a Bear fan.
The story focuses on Harvey, a character brought to life by Bill Theisen, the longtime artistic director at Skylight and a man who clearly needs to be on stage in Wisconsin a lot more.
Theisen, who is built kind of like a pear on steroids, brings hilarity wherever he goes and with whatever he says. The moment he put on a Packer colored bra – complete with large green and gold breasts – and managed a frightful shimmy on stage brought the house down.
He is also a marvelous singer who understands that in musical theater the words of a song are incredibly important, and he makes sure each word is sung just as it should be.
But this play is not all about laughs, even though they come frequently and easily.
Somewhere in this script, Rhode found a story about how different people have all kinds of mistaken impressions of people who aren’t like them. It’s about how those mistaken impressions can make people act in ways that are self-protective and sometimes painful.
The journey of these characters toward something resembling peace and friendship is a halting one, but each obstacle – from language to values – is brushed aside in the unrecognized desire to be something other than enemies.
The main love story is between Peg, gracefully and earnestly played by a lovely Eva Nimmer, and "39," played by Chase Stoeger (who is married to Rhode). Stoeger is marvelous as an alien who not only doesn’t understand anything about Peg, but is determined to avoid any contact with women of any stripe. The lovely song "Life on Earth" is a joyful collision of two worlds, both enlightened to the other.
The production helps to solidify Rhode as even more than the triple threat she had been at one point. She can act, dance, sing, play instruments, choreograph and direct with incredible depth and sensitivity. A cast in Rhode’s hands can be sure that they are going to find new places to explore, and the audience is the clear winner.
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