Grassroots players stage TV-inspired court spoof
WORTHINGTON -- To prepare for their roles in the latest production of Grassroots Community Theatre, the cast members only had to turn on their TV sets.
"Contempt of Court" is a comedy based on reality courtroom television programs.
"It's a spoof of 'Judge Judy,' the 'People's Court' format," explained director Mary Jane Mardesen. "There are a lot of chances for audience participation. At the end, the audience will be the jury and vote for who's guilty, who's innocent."
Grassroots Community Theatre -- a longtime community endeavor that has been revitalized in recent years -- has found a niche in the interactive theater format.
"We love it," said Mardesen. "It's easy to prepare, and you can cheat a lot, because the audience doesn't seem to be real exacting."
During the company's last dinner theater event, for instance, actor John Widboom's script referral became part of the interaction.
"John had his script in a bucket, and at one point he put it down in front of a woman and said, 'Get that script out and find out where I am,'" related Mardesen.
The Grassroots troupe has tried out different venues for productions, utilizing Pioneer Village and the Historic Dayton House most recently, and for "Contempt of Court" they've moved once again. The dinner theater is scheduled for two nights, Feb. 28 and March 2, at the Elks Lodge, 1105 Second Ave.
"It's a bigger space, with more area to move around," said Mardesen. "We liked the Dayton House, but it was so tight that we had to do the play twice each night to make it pay."
Cec Burchill has assumed the Judge Judy role and admits to researching her part with a dose of daytime TV.
"I can't get her accent down on everything, but some things I've gotten so it sounds like she would say it," said Burchill about the real-life TV judge of the same name, adding, "It kills me to watch her. She can get a bit snippy, so I've gotten some of it down so I can bring it in when needs be."
Burchill first caught the acting bug in high school and enjoys participating in productions when possible.
"I'm a ham," she said. "I guess that's the way to put it. It just puts you in a different role, gets you out of everyday life and puts you in a fantasy world."
Marv Zylstra, who plays attorney Sidney Schyster, opposed by Jessica Hieronimus' Melissa Cheatham, has found his role to be challenging.
"The lines are a bearcat," he said. "There are big blocks of lines. I'm portraying a lawyer, and they are windy. A lot of times in theater, there's a person that you're having a conversation with, and they have a lead-in line you can pick up on, a normal flow of conversation. You don't have that here."
For his research, Zylstra has paid particular attention to one of his favorite TV shows, "Law & Order: SVU," taking some pointers from watching the courtroom interactions.
"It's a time commitment," he said about participating in community theater. "But especially in the winter months, it's a good diversion, and I like to interact with people. And it's kind of a way of giving back to the community. Luckily, I can still remember the lines. ... As long as I have the ability and can still do it, it's a lot of fun."
Because it's an interactive play, the success of the production relies somewhat on the audience members and their willingness to play along with the actors. Rounding out the cast are Jay Myer, Widboom, Megan Bosma and Chip Peters.
"You're probably going to know 50 percent of the people who are there, and they are all there to have a good time, too," said Zylstra. "Hopefully, they'll get up and ham it up. It's their opportunity to be a part of theater without actually getting out and doing it."
"If you get the right people in there, it makes a difference," concurred Burchill. "Hopefully, during the dinner we can look around at the audience and say, 'This person would be really good.' And it's that kind of play where to some extent you can do some adlibbing to bring out more of the fun and the unexpected."
Mardesen hopes to keep to the schedule of mounting two Grassroots Community Theater productions each year and emphasized that new faces are always welcome in the cast.
"We just kind of fell into the interactive theater, but it's working," she said. "But we still have to explain it to folks, that interactive means you may be called upon to be a witness."
"Contempt of Court" will be staged on two nights, Feb. 28 and March 2. A meal is served at 6:30 p.m., with the interactive theater to follow. Chicken Cordon Bleu will be served on Feb. 28; prime rib on March 2. Tickets are available at The Stag, Ax Photo, HyVee Food Store and the Elks Club.
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.