Mill Mountain’s “The Matador” Challenges and Provides Laughs As Well

Drew Dowdy (left) and Charles Reynolds square off in The Matador on the Waldron Stage.
Drew Dowdy (left) and Charles Reynolds square off in The Matador on the Waldron Stage.

The collaboration between the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University – its New Works Initiative – and Mill Mountain Theatre, continues this weekend with a play written by one of the graduate students at the school. How to describe The Matador: a one-act anti-play? Okay, think of a Spanish bullfighter, sort of clueless in some ways when it comes to relationships, but very macho – down to his pink stockings.

Or the bull that has gored The Matador several times in the ring. But they still like each other enough to dance the tango. The bull also dances the tango with The Dame, played by recent Hollins graduate Emma Sperka – who has romantic aspirations concerning both The Bull and The Matador.

Director Todd Ristau, who also is program director at the Playwright’s Lab, called The Matador, “A theatrical experience unlike your normal, traditional…play,” in a talk back session after the last dress rehearsal. The play runs through this Sunday, February 10, with evening performances at 8pm (Feb. 6-9) and matinees on the 9th and 10th (2pm) as well.

All tickets are $10, and the venue is Mill Mountain Theatre’s renovated Waldron Stage at 20 Church Avenue SE, which has new lighting and seat risers, with a more airy feel than before. Center in the Square executive director Jim Sears said this past Tuesday that the grand reopening for Center in the Square itself remains on track for May.

“We’re excited to be part of that reorganization,” said Ristau, who will bring new plays from the Playwright’s Lab and the improvisational No Shame Theater, he founded in Iowa almost 30 years ago, back to Mill Mountain. The collaboration between the school and Mill Mountain Theatre solidified a year ago with another play from the New Works Initiative, The Arctic Circle.

That piece was written by LA-based playwright Samantha Macher, a Hollins MFA graduate of the Playwright’s Lab who returned to Roanoke as assistant director/designer for The Matador. Robert Plowman’s one act “anti-play” as it was billed was actually one of six plays he wrote for a class taught by Ristau.

The principal actors (Drew Dowdy as The Matador, Emma Sperka as The Dame and Charles Reynolds as The Bull) spent three weeks learning the tango, which becomes an important component of the play. There’s plenty of original music too, courtesy of composer/troubadour Matthew Marshall, who also appears in The Matador, strolling about the set as he sings.

Labeled as absurdist theatre, The Matador is the type of play one might not have expected to see in Roanoke 10, 15 years ago, except perhaps on a college campus. Is it hard perhaps to decipher what it’s about? Maybe, but Ristau said that was just fine: “Whatever you think this play is about – that’s what its about,” he said afterwards.

Created in just 72 hours as part of a class assignment, Plowman noted that in a situation like that, “you have to act instinctively as a writer.” Ristau wrote in the playbill that Plowman “struggled” with the assignment, only hammering out the play in the last 24 hours available. The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco was suggested as a work his students should study as an example of the absurdist style.

With a play like The Matador, “it really feels like something – even if the meaning is obscure,” said Plowman. The actors do a fine job in their roles, which all require singing and dancing; there’s a bit of audience participation and a good deal of laughter. The Matador may or may not be about people searching for an identity or for someone else – or it may be about something else entirely.

The one-act, 55 minute play will challenge theatergoers but won’t overtax them. It’s the type of live theater the now-defunct Studio Roanoke used to stage, and it’s coming back to Mill Mountain and the new Center in the Square. Fans of live theater may want to give it a go this weekend.

By Gene Marrano