Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Anyone who has ever performed for the public knows what "Trouping" is all about: the missed cue, the forgotten lines, the colossal breakdown that a million people seem to be watching. Years after the goof is forgotten by everyone else, you still dream about it at night and chuckle about it during your daydreams.
"Trouping," which opened Thursday night at the ASTA Theater, takes us into a situation where such big botches were probably inevitable. A group of thespians are touring the backwoods of Ohio in the 1880s with a repertory of several dozen melodramas that are not quite as interchangeable as they might initially seem. So much goes wrong at this particular performance that TV viewers in the audience will swear that the little Ohio town where "Trouping" is set is surely named "Fernwood."
Russell Metheny has designed an Ohio theater with transparent backstage walls, so while the audience watches the supposedly controlled action onstage, the chaos and clash of egos behind the scenes is equally visible. The confusion gradually creeps onto the stage. The ad libs fly thick and fast as everyone tries to patch up the outer fabric of the evening, but the company's inner lining is worn to a frazzle.
The pace drags occasionally, but even then the point is well taken: Sometimes the messes we find ourselves in seem to go on forever. "Trouping" doesn't last more than 90 minutes, and it doesn't press anything too far.
ASTA first presented "Trouping" two years ago, but apparently it was more of a one-joke affair then. The variety of complications is greater now. The text uses two real 19th-century plays. "The Mighty Dollar" and "The Banker's Daughter," supplemented by backstage dialogue developed by ASTA under Dona Cooper's direction.
Cooper's casting and direction has produced a collection of physical types whose backstage personalities sometimes careen away quite comically from the expected stereotypes. The noodling presence of Carol Lee Shahid as Minnie and the frustrated energy of Madeleine Potter as Becky were particularly enjoyable.
"How amazing life is," one of the characters ad libs. "One never knows what will happen next." That's a melodramatic description of the amazement of the stage itself, and in its unassuming way. "Trouping" lives up to its stage traditions with honor and charm.