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reviewed by Larry Adams

The skies were clear, the moon was bright and full, and the temperature was just right. It was one of those beautiful Indiana summer evenings, and so I closed up the office and took the short drive out to the hundred-year-old church that now serves as home to Westfield Playhouse. A jog up the steps and through the lobby, and I quickly found myself in the fictional town of Bunyan Bay, Minnesota for a performance of Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married.

Which reminds me- before I even get to the play, a word about the venue: the refurbished little church in and of itself is a charming place to see a show, but board president John Sampson consistently impresses with his sets, in this case creating a mammoth, high-ceilinged interior of a small-town drinking establishment complete with tables and chairs, a full- size bar and a separate stage for the occasional entertainer or local singer. I’ve been on this stage a few times over the past couple of years and I know it isn’t big enough to hold this set. It’s easy to forget the contribution of the peripheral elements in a production as we focus on the actors, but, with the help of tone-perfect set decoration by director Doug Davis, this impressive set draws the audience into the fictional world of Bunyan long before the actors first take the stage.

Clara (Karen Webster,) Trigger (Doug Stanton,) Bernice (Tanya Haas,) and Kanute (Kevin Shadle)

Clara (Karen Webster,) Trigger (Doug Stanton,) Bernice (Tanya Haas,) and Kanute (Kevin Shadle) in a scene from Westfield Playhouse’s production of “Don’t Hug Me, I’m Married”.

Ok. On to the show. Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married, by Phil and Paul Olson, is apparently the fifth in a series of Don’t Hug Me plays, all revolving around the same six characters, who presumably must therefore have some sort of longstanding intimacy problems. (I say “apparently” and “presumably” because I haven’t actually seen any of the other plays or bothered to do any research beyond asking the actors after the show. I’m on a deadline here, and my internet barely beats dial-up.) Westfield staged one of the previous shows in the series a few years ago and has brought back three of the original four actors to reprise their roles in this sequel. DHMWM takes a look at three different relationships among the characters: a new one just starting along the wedding track, a longstanding marriage that has lost its spark, and a, well, semi-reluctant romantic entanglement. Throw in a stun gun and a plague of encephalitis infected mosquitoes and, as they say, hilarious hijinks ensue.

This ain’t Shakespeare. It’s pure fluff, which makes it perfect entertainment for a summer evening after a long week at work or dealing with the kids. And although that’s not usually my favorite cup of tea, I have to admit this production has such an endearing quality to it that I couldn’t help but be sucked in. Partly that’s a credit to the script, which is filled with winks at the audience, almost early David Letterman-esque winks (kind of a “sure, it’s stupid, but what the heck, it’s just a show” sort of thing) which serve to reassure that no one, including either of the writers, is taking this too seriously. But it’s more than that. The cast just has a palpable chemistry, a comfort level perhaps developed in the previous production, that allows them to play it with abandon. They just look like they’re having fun on stage, and that fun is infectious. Like elephantitis. (Alright, you won’t get that one unless you see the show.)

Kevin Shadle shines in what I think is his best role yet as the rich and lonely Kanute, while Mike Green, who impressed me years ago in A Nice Family Gathering, again lights up the stage as the new groom-to-be Aarvid. Karen Webster and Tanya Haas, two ladies with whom I have had the absolute pleasure and honor of sharing a stage or two, show why they are among Indianapolis’s most enjoyable and dependable actresses as Clara and Bernice respectively, nailing both the laughs and the occasional poignant moments. Doug Stanton, however, gets the juiciest role (roles?) of the show as both Clara’s husband Gunner and his “identical twin sister” Trigger, and he revels in the latter. Cheap laughs? Sure, but he embraces them fully and makes them work to the point of being scene stealers. Put together, the five (six?) work together so smoothly and naturally you suspect they didn’t need a director- which, of course, is generally the hallmark of good directing. Credit Doug Davis here for both inspired casting and deft direction.

Aarvid (Michael Green) and Bernice (Tanya Haas)

Aarvid (Michael Green) and Bernice (Tanya Haas) in a scene from Westfield Playhouse’s production of “Don’t Hug Me, I’m Married”.

Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married was advertised during the previous production as a “play with music” rather than a musical, a distinction which, after watching it, seems somehow accurate even if I can’t quite put my finger on why. The show mixes a surprisingly lengthy set of short songs into the fun through the gimmick of a karaoke machine that can supposedly read the thoughts of the characters. If that sounds a bit hokey, well, it is, but not to worry- the writers aren’t particularly wedded to the idea and don’t seem to mind ignoring or completely disregarding it if it gets in the way of a joke. The cast, to their credit, does an admirable job of voicing the songs and pulling off what little choreography goes along with them.

In terms of pure musical talent, the ladies, I must say, outshine the gentlemen; however, even if the guys are not in great danger of becoming The Next American Idols, they still prove themselves perfectly capable of carrying a tune and are infinitely better dancers than Yours Truly (that last part’s not saying much, guys). Fortunately, the songs themselves don’t require major feats of operatic virtuosity, and, in fact, would probably be lessened by them. Even with the occasional missed note or chopped rhythm, there is a certain charm and, if I may say so, “authenticity” in hearing the thoughts and dreams of these simple characters revealed in pleasing but untrained voices.

Initially, I couldn’t quite decide if the whole musical concept of the show was working for me, with some of the first act songs seemingly rather forced and pedestrian; but the second act numbers, including Doug Stanton’s hilarious “The Day That Bob Dylan Was Here” and the show-stopping “We’re All Gonna Die,” easily won me- and clearly the rest of the audience- over. Again, it’s not Shakespeare, and it’s not Les Miz either; but, in a word or two, the music and the actors’ performances of it are, like the rest of the show, simply “great fun.”

Bottom line (as A Seat on the Aisle’s glorious leader Ken Klingenmeier would say): if you’re looking for a night of no-thought, pure fun entertainment, head out to Westfield Playhouse’s Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married.

Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married continues through June 18th. You can get theatre information and reservations at http://www.westfieldplayhouse.org or by calling 317.402.3341 .

  • – Photos from Westfield Playhouse’s Facebook page
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