backstage (2005-39)

Last Laugh

Theatre Central leaves town on a light note with Fools

WISE FOOLS: The cast of Fools grins goodbye.

by Leslie Wylie

Progress has a wide girth and a nasty habit of bumping leaner entities off the map entirely. Theatre Central has been a good sport about this reality for the past 17 years, quietly making a name for itself as one of Knoxville’s scrappiest and most adaptable production companies.

Without complaint, it shifted in response to the whims of downtown renovation, relocating to Gay Street when the area surrounding its original location in the Old City was developed, then moving again to Market Square. When the square began its comeback, the company found a resting place at 319 N. Gay St., across from Regas.

Today’s performance space isn’t much to look at. Between shabby carpeting, threadbare décor and homemade sets that leave much to the imagination, its shelled-out interior evokes some hybrid of a garage sale and an art student’s living room.

But when the lights go down, the significance of slipshod details dims as well. The play begins, revealing through vignettes of well-rehearsed speech and action some playwright’s commentary on the human condition. As always, director/founder Mark Moffett sits solemnly at a table in the back, watching and listening as his production unravels.

Moffett’s witness to the next few weeks’ productions, however, may be tinged with bittersweet nostalgia, as Theatre Central enters into its final season. It will close its doors forever after a final performance Oct. 22, and Moffett will move to Erie, Pa., to care for his ailing mother.

For a man whose life revolves around drama, the director’s choice of a light Neil Simon comedy, Fools , for his company’s final production may seem paradoxical. But Moffett explains that he thought it appropriate to go out with a laugh.  

“We have a good time here,” he explains. “If nobody can make any money [Theatre Central employs a volunteer cast], at least we can have a good time.”

Moffett says that while Theatre Central productions pay the bills—“I’m not leaving town beholden to anybody,” he says—there’s no profit margin to speak of, either. Performances are just as likely to draw an audience of six or seven as a spilling-into-the-streets crowd of 30 or 40.

The opening night of Fools , for instance, was a sparsely attended event. But the cast didn’t seem to care, appearing genuinely amused with the classic Simon script.

Fools is set in Kulyenchikov, a remote village in the Ukraine inhabited by a mentally un-elevated population. Thanks to a 200-year-old curse, their sea-level IQs are complemented by an even more perplexing deficiency: the inability

Leon Tolchinsky (David Eilart) is a young schoolteacher who arrives in the village armed with idealism, a knapsack of textbooks and a determination to impart knowledge. After falling in love with one of his pupils, the stupid-but-sweet Sophia Zubritsky (Tiffany Greene), he learns that only she holds the ticket to the cursed village’s emancipation. The catch, of course, is that it can only

For a play so concerned with inanity, Fools packs a great deal of wit. Every pun stands proof that logic in reverse can be just as smart, not to mention entertaining, as its intelligent counterparts. Theatre Central’s cast dumbs down nicely for the occasion, living up to Moffett’s declaration that his actors are “the best comedians in town.”

Asked why he chose Fools as a parting gesture, Moffett responds, simply, “Because I like it.” He offers no other explanation, but it’s easy to see why the director might make such a decision—starting with his ability to relate to the character of schoolteacher Leon.

When Moffett arrived in town himself all those years ago, the Knoxville theater scene was an empty slate of possibility. He recalls that there were only two or three other dramatic performance venues in operation, and then, as now, the city’s priorities didn’t always coincide with the desires of the arts community.

Seventeen years later, similar obstacles remain. In the name of progress, fringe art groups are still being displaced—the current flux of Candy Factory-based community art groups is a prime example—and the city still has other, supposedly more important things on its mind. Traveling downtown to see a play on a home football game Saturday night, for instance, seems an unthinkable activity.

But even after years of barely scraping by, re-educating Knoxville’s theatrical consciousness, Moffett departs undeterred. He wishes the company, Theatre Knoxville, that will be moving into his Gay Street performance space good luck, and says he intends to carry his passion for the theater with him to Pennsylvania: “I’ll have to find something to entertain myself up there.”

What: Fools

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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