The Rapidian

Circle Theatre's 'Over the River and Through the Woods' celebrates family

Circle Theatre presents Over The River and Through the Woods, a two-act play, at Aquinas College Performing Arts Center on August 11th – 27th.
The Ensemble sit down and ...try... saying grace

The Ensemble sit down and ...try... saying grace /Bryan Esler Photo

Circle Theatre presents Over the River and Through the Woods

Circle Theatre presents "Over the River and Through the Woods," a two-act play, at Aquinas College Performing Arts Center on August 11th – 27th.


Ben Avery as Nick the Grandson

Ben Avery as Nick the Grandson /Bryan Esler Photo

Upon entering the theater, the audience is treated to a warm set- your living room-slash-dining room for the evening. Make yourself at home! It’ll be a fast-paced feast of the senses with gentle, yet driving instrumental music that will tickle the back of your ears, smells of sauces and freshly cooked meats that will warm your nostrils, flamboyant and subtle characters to play with your eyes, laughter for your funny bone, and a kindling fire for your heart.

River/Woods is a charming tale of life, family, and the process of aging. Through a mixture of picture-painting soliloquys, underscored with beautiful “movie-score”-style music, and hilarious volleys of familial dialogue, we see the inner dynamics and events that make up this non-traditional, yet traditional-to-the-core family of Italian immigrants and their prized grandson, Nick. Grandpa Frank needs to stop driving for his safety, and others. Grandma Emma is worried to death that her grandson will never get married, to the point that it’s all she talks about at Canasta. Grandma Aida, can’t stand still for a minute because of the amount of food that she has to push through that table, poor woman. Appearing to be the only "normal" one, a retired auto-worker with a gift for the gab, Grandpa Nunzio, even has a secret of his own. But none of these will compare to the life changing secret that Nick himself is about to present to the family.

The style of the show is one of memory and moments. Exposition of character is often portrayed in memories, which are featured as soliloquies for just the audiences’ ears. We learn something new about that character and it helps us to define who they are as a person and their role in this family. These memories give us perspective for the moments in the play that make up the story of the evening. Quite unlike the focused and single-voiced memories, these moments are loud and rambunctious as the group of grandparents take on an almost chorus like effect surrounding Nick, the grandson. Sometimes, due to the nature of the piece, or maybe the nature of family, these moments became whirlwinds of hilarity and drama, as we were carried through the play. This chaos, brilliantly mastered by the cast, made those moments of memory all the more important to painting the picture and pushing the plot forward.

It was difficult to single any one actor out, or even a couple, as well-representing the script and the story, because they all did such committed, and amazing jobs. Bud Thompson is a master of the dry joke as Frank. Stacey Wykoski has enough energy to cook ten meals a day as Aida. Mary Close's wild Grandma Emma was frenetic and hilarious, all the while keeping us charmed with her sweet smile. Tony Peraino was slick and tender, giving one the impression that he could sell you a used car in under a minute, and make you feel a better person for doing so. Ben Avery carried anxiety and confusion around like a child with a secret wrongdoing, and many times he easily switched between his adult annoyance with his grandparents, and his childish need for their attention and love. Even cameo actress Lindsay Tallian in her all too little stage time, made you fall in love with her quirk and sincerity. Director Penelope Notter, a seasoned director with Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, returning to her GR roots with this production, chose the perfect group of ensembles to tell the story with her this evening.

Reviewer's final words

Even the coldest heart will fall in love with these characters tonight. The story carries a timeless quality to it, although I was a little taken aback by how stereotypical Nick was dressed compared to the rest of the cast. The boldest and most appropriate choice, however, of the evening was a complete and honest thrust staging which I haven't fully seen at Circle in quite some time. It is an easy choice sometimes to have proscenium style theater, but Circle has been known for many years to do things non-traditional, and tonight it was Mrs. Notter's use of diagonal blocking, seeing scenes through the eyes of listening characters, and boldness of giving an audience member a full back-shot sometimes in the sake of art. What theatres don't necessarily understand about true thrust staging, is that it inspires audiences to return to get what is often termed as “the other half of the story.” With typical thrust staging, it is inevitable that an audience member is going to receive someone's backside for a good portion of the occasional scene. Your first thought might be that you got cheated out a ticket price and only received half the play. This was never the case with River/Woods. Yes, I did see backsides, but I was never left out of the story, and I am very intrigued to go again, sit on the other side of the seats, and see the same story under different lights. That is the sign of a good show, when you can't wait to return.

Company and cast information:

For sixty years and counting, Circle Theatre has enriched, entertained and educated the community through exceptional theatrical arts in an intimate setting. Located in the Performing Arts Center on the campus of Aquinas College, Circle Theatre presents innovative and entertaining theatre while fostering an enthusiastic and hard-working corps of individuals who serve as staff, volunteers and board members. Through the Main Stage season, unique Summer Concert Series and Magic Circle family productions, Circle Theatre engages close to 30,000 people each season. Circle Theatre also values and creates effective collaborations with various community organizations in and around Grand Rapids.

The cast includes: Ben Avery, G.M. (Bud) Thompson, Lindsay Tallian, Mary Close, Stacey Wykoski, and Tony Peraino.

For more information about Circle Theatre and their 2016 Season, please visit their website at

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