Rooming House

By - Jun 1st, 2007 02:52 pm
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With Milwaukee being host to so many productions of plays written by people in other parts of the country, it’s always nice to see something new written by a local playwright. Early this summer, Olsen Arts Theatre Group opened Rooming House, written and directed by local playwright Christel Olsen. The play is a comedy about a group of people living in…well…a rooming house.

Kim Ballou stars as Geraldine Rennelli – a woman who runs…wait for it…a rooming house. Geraldine, who is known to her psychologically diverse boarders as “Ms. Geri,” is a tough, charismatic woman who seems to be quite respected by all who meet her. There’s a lot of comic potential in the many strange personalities inhabiting a domestic space like this. Brilliant comedy can come when the weird is juxtaposed against the equally weird but, unfortunately, Olsen and company deliver on so little of it that it hardly seems worth the effort. Sadly, Rooming House isn’t that good.

Ballou performs quite well as uber-mom to a strange collection of characters, many of whom have a great deal of comedic depth. Occasionally we even see the cast of actors grasp fleeting moments of this depth. For the most part, however, the cast seems all too conscious of the fact that it is on stage and not conscious enough of what’s supposed to be going on in the play.

The space at Bucketworks doesn’t help, either. The acoustics in the performance space are offensively bad. This makes it particularly difficult to hear actors who lack enough stage experience to know how to properly project their voices. If Rooming House was a straight drama, the acoustic problem would probably end there. The fact that it’s a comedy makes things all the worse. In order for comedy to work there needs to be something like a coherent punch line. If the punch line isn’t delivered with the kind of strength it needs AND the space is muffling what’s being said, there may be too many obstacles for laughter to actually occur.

The lack of clarity in the dialogue is an ongoing problem throughout that affects every aspect of the story. Comedic and dramatic elements that aren’t always particularly well defined in the script are further confused by self-conscious performances that fail to deliver the right emphasis at the right times. Rooming House isn’t a play so much as the dream of one. People sleep walk through performances culled from a script that isn’t quite polished enough to develop the kind of glossy pop comedy for which Olsen seems to be aiming. All this would seem like wasted effort were it not for the fact that the dream is so clearly visible. The final significant scene between Ballou and Brenda Riley (as her next door neighbor Leslie Bufano) is the one of the best. The two characters finally connect and there’s a real feeling of genuine emotion.

It should be pointed out that Rooming House is not an aggressively bad play. It’s a very human story that seems to have its heart generally in the right place. Audiences are very forgiving and once people catch on to the specific flavor of the comedy in Olsen’s writing, a generally good time can be had by many of the people in the audience. Still in its infancy, Olsen Arts Theatre group has real potential. VS

Olsen Arts Theatre Group’s production of Rooming House runs through June 2nd at Bucketworks. Tickets are available by calling Bucketworks at 414-736-9899. Visit Olsen Arts online at

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