'Black Friday' offers holiday light

Randall Theatre Company in Medford has come up with a new take on holiday theater fare. "Black Friday" styles itself as a comedy about the traditional shopping onslaught on the day after Thanksgiving from the point of view of the staff of a small department store.

Actually, "Black Friday," written and directed by Peter Wickliffe, is a fuzzy, warm love note to all of the holiday season. It's about love, friendship and the importance of family. The first act may be about "Black Friday," but the long second act is all about the true meaning of Christmas and takes place on Christmas Eve.

Wickliffe is a regular in Rogue Valley community theater, as both an actor and a director at Randall and Camelot Theatre. With "Black Friday," he says he wanted to combine the ensemble character work of a television sitcom with a love story loosely based on "Shop Around the Corner."

"Black Friday" has some fun with its characters. There is the pompous store manager, Mr. Roddlestein (Geoff Ridden), who fancies himself an officer leading his troops into battle. There is the yee-haw cowboy, Oscar (Christopher Perme), who lives in his own fantasy western movie. There is a wise Russian immigrant woman, Mrs. Huegul (played by Pam Ward, the excellent Aldonza in Randall's production of "Man of LaMancha" earlier this year). There is the exceedingly timid newcomer, Billy (Nat Dalbec), a delightfully obtuse stock boy, Archie (Kevin Dauphin) and a bored veteran clerk, Laurie (Meagan Kirby).

And there are the two young lovers. Rodger (Nick Walker) is capable and always dependable, befriending everyone and keeping everything on an even keel. Nicole (Brianna Gowland) is his sensible, hardworking colleague. They have, through their long hours working together, become each other's best friend and sounding board. It is obvious they are in love but neither has the courage to make the first move.

After a fast and breathless first scene in which Roddlestein tries to buck up his troops against "the moment" when the store's doors open and the shopping hordes descend, Wickliffe uses Rodger as a narrator to explain these characters' quirks and the dynamic between them. It's a nicely written device but ultimately redundant because we see who these characters are and how they interact as the minutes until "the moment" tick down. Wickliffe should trust his skill at developing his characters through dialogue a little more.

He could also pull back on the decibel and hysteria level on stage. Once you've got people shouting at each other and jumping up and down, you pretty much have nowhere to go with character development.

The second act of "Black Friday" is the aftermath — sort of ignoring all the shopping days between the end of November and set on the evening of Dec. 24. Will the fired Mrs. Huegul and Archie be rehired? Will Billy stand up to Oscar's overly protective bullying? And will Rodger and Nicole finally admit they love each other?

Wickliffe's point — we all need to treasure family — is nicely expressed in the scene between Nicole and Rodger. But Wickliffe has also tried to resolve too many character conflicts with too many other endings to his story. As each scene on stage goes dark, the audience sort of waits for the lights to come up and applaud — is this the finale? And then, it's not.

"Black Friday" works much of the time. This was its premiere production and Wickliffe has cast some wonderful actors to trade some good quips and heartfelt concepts. The play could use some editing, but that's what early productions are for — to see where a play can be improved.

On opening night, prior to curtain, Randall Theatre presented a half-hour performance of the Southern Oregon Improv Group. Six actors — leader Richard Royce, Kathleen Finnegan, Ranjeeth Thunga, Archie Koenig, Jack Lanni and Jindati Doelter — bounced enthusiastically around the stage, making up scenes and characters from prompts offered by the audience. Some of the improv worked. Much of it did not.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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