Marlow and Karon Semones Ferguson, owners of Star City Playhouse in Vinton, have elected for a “Season of Giggles” in their 2019 productions, focusing primarily on Victorian-era comedies written for pairs of actors.
The Fergusons have unearthed two more one-act comedy gems with “Crystal Gazer” by Leopold Montague and “Backward Child” by Childe Pemberton. The plays are from a collection compiled in 1906— forerunners of both vaudeville and sit-coms such as “I Love Lucy.”
“Crystal Gazer” is the story of a soothsayer sought out by a woman trying to locate her fiancé. Barbara Grisham plays the role of Miss Bessie Blank; Cathy Fisher is “Madame La Sorciere.”
As the play opens, Madame enters with a stack of letters from those anxious to know their future. She claims to “know as much about the future as anyone else,” and has found her profession to be fairly lucrative, preying upon the gullible. One secret to her success is the extensive research she conducts before meeting with clients. Then there’s her exotic dress and assumed foreign accent.
Her first appointment of the day is to be with a woman who has lost her poodle. When a young woman arrives hoping to find her lost loved one, Madame informs her that for a guinea she will employ “thought transference/animal magnetism” to solve her dilemma. Or she can use her crystal ball for a more expensive “divination.”
Madame asks many questions about the missing dog— unfortunately, Bessie becomes more and more confused by her questions since a dog is not the loved one Bessie has lost. She calls out Madame as an imposter and charlatan. Madame’s reply is that she interpreted a “perfectly good vision just intended for someone else,” not Bessie.
In a twist of plot, Madame realizes that Bessie is connected with one of the letters she received earlier in the day and claims, “I’ve had another vision.” Sounds confusing? It’s hilarious.
Fisher got her start in acting with Star City, although her first appearance was in their first production in Vinton, “Shakespeare in Love,” not acting, but performing a musical interlude during intermission. She has since acted in three of their plays, including “Cactus Flower.”
She jokes that as a child she portrayed the cherry tree chopped down by George Washington (not a speaking role) and “pulled a lot of curtains,” although she did land a role with the Roanoke Valley Children’s Theatre that consisted of two lines.
Fisher says she always loved theatre and attended Mill Mountain performances as a child. She came from a “pretty funny family” with a mother who was a punster and a dad who was a great storyteller and also liked pranks. She says the Fergusons patiently “took her in” even without acting experience and she is now a member of the company.
Fisher says that she learned from Marlow Ferguson that it’s not just knowing how to deliver your own lines as an actor, but how to look at the actor who is speaking to you.
The Fergusons like ensembles, which matches her style. Fisher says playing a role for several performances does not become tedious, but only becomes more interesting as time passes as you add nuances with each performance.
Karon Ferguson says that is the delight of live theater— every performance is different.
This is Grisham’s first acting role with Star City. Her other performances have been with “The Haunt” at Terror Manor in Roanoke— a haunted house attraction, now in its second year. Grisham says Terror Manor is “like walking into a horror movie.”
She is a full-time mother to two children who like voices and pretending. She has always loved acting and remembers her “amazing drama teacher” at Staunton River High School.
The second one-act comedy, “Backward Child,” is the tale of a spoiled child who antagonizes every governess her father hires. Her latest victim is Miss Milliken, who she torments at every opportunity. Latriva Pierce, who has appeared in four Star City productions, has the role of Florence, the backward child. Katerina Yancy is the beleaguered governess.
Truth be known, Milliken does not work as a governess due to her love for children, but as a means to earn a living. She often finds her charges “pert” and disagreeable and quickly discovers Florence is no exception. As she attempts to ascertain what knowledge Florence has of such subjects as geography, math, and grammar, the child continually thwarts and insults her. Miss Milliken decides to ask Florence’s father for a month’s advance in salary and then hop the first train out of town.
Pierce gives a delightful performance as Florence with her wide-eyed impish impertinence and comical facial expressions. She is an upcoming freshman at William Byrd High School and a member of both the marching and concert bands. Her first role for Star City was in “The Nerd.” Her first acting role was as the Lost Boy in “Peter Pan” with a children’s theatre in Minnesota before her family moved here.
Yancey has a great deal of theatre experience as an actor and executive artistic director with Attic Productions, a community theatre located near Fincastle and well-known throughout the region. She recently “had the itch to act” and thought a one-act play would be a good choice and not as time-consuming as a full-length production.
She majored in theatre at James Madison University and started with Attic Productions 21 years ago in the “Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” She had some limited acting experience in high school as “the second villager from the left.” She says that last year in the Attic production of “First Baptist of Ivy Gap,” when she was stage manager, one of the actors became ill and she took the role at the last moment.
Yancey says she enjoys acting and directing equally although they are “different mental exercises. Acting is memorization; directing is problem-solving— making sure the audience sees what you wanted them to see.”
The actors say that they have been in rehearsals for about a month for the current productions. Pierce says that a one-act play takes less time for memorizing and so gives more time to work on blocking.
Yancey says that a one-act play can be harder than a full-length production. “Boiling down everything to a shorter time period can be more difficult. However, a one-act play helps to hone your acting skills.”
The Fergusons hit the comedy jackpot with these four actors. Karon says that choosing the right person for each role has become instinctual— “you just know.”
It has always been the goal of the Fergusons and Star City to introduce audiences and actors to a wide variety of shows ranging from Broadway’s beginnings to unfamiliar playwrights, not just the old standards, and they have certainly done a good job of that in their two years in Vinton.
Star City Theater is located at 107 South Pollard Street in downtown Vinton with plenty of parking available across the street at the former Vinton Motors, at the Vinton Farmers’ Market, at Vinton Baptist, in municipal lots, and on the downtown streets.
“Crystal Gazer” and “Backward Child” will run on Fridays at 7 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. from June 28 through July 14. General admission is $12; $8 for seniors and students.
Reservations and information are available by calling 366-1446. Check out the Facebook page for coming events, audition schedules, and fundraisers. Come out and support community theatre.