Productions by the Alumni Company at the Commonwealth Theatre Center remain the most criminally unrecognized part of Louisville’s performing arts community. Consisting of Commonwealth Theatre Center teaching artists, Walden Theatre Conservatory alumni, and other Louisville-based theater practitioners, the shows feature professional quality actors, who are supported by a decent sized budget, but don’t have to sweat ticket sales quite as much as other companies. It’s often a spot for college students and recent college graduates with ties to CTC to show off their chops and work on weird, challenging or new work. The Alumni Company regularly presents some of the highest quality work happening anywhere in Louisville’s independent theater community.
Their current offering “Bowling for Beginners” is another gem from Louisville-based playwright Diana Grisanti. A CTC Alumni who has worked on several projects there, her work has appeared all over town, including works premiered at Actors Theatre of Louisville and Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.
This is a workshop production — so while it’s impeccably rehearsed and ably directed by Alumni Company Director Mitchell Martin, it is very much a work in progress. Nevertheless, this story of a team of women bowlers attempting to retain their national championship while brushing up against the gender-based injustices in college sports may well be the most flat out enjoyable night of theater I’ve experienced in the last year.
I’m low-key obsessed with Grisanti’s work, and unashamed by the fact. She is able to balance politics while creating an intimate connection between the audience and the characters. She makes work that is uniquely theatrical, and her play are plays, not films that happen to be happening in a theater.
She normally wears her feminism on her sleeve, without falling into didactic or preachy cliches. Towards the end of its 90-minute run time “Bowling” does slide into out-and-out speeches decrying the ills of the patriarchy, but it does so in a delirious haze of spectacle and humor that is so engaging that anyone who is sitting there judging it for didacticism seriously needs to re-evaluate their priorities.
Grisanti always includes a healthy dose of humor in her work, but “Bowling” is an veritable comedy Chex mix of sex jokes, gross out humor, witty dialogue and straight up bonkers outside of reality slapstick.
The play features a sizable cast — 10 actors — and despite the consistent laugh embarrassingly-loud moments (I’d like to openly apologize to Thursday night’s audience), Grisanti and Martin are equally confident dialing the action down to focus on intimate moments.
This cast is 80 percent women, which is — unfortunately — still a rarity in theater, and in Louisville. Especially when one considers the fact that each role is meaty and engaging. It’s impossible to pick any stand-out performances to highlight, with the possible exception of Sabrina Spalding. Her performance as a mysterious librarian gets to start at silly and get sillier. But highlighting Spalding would downplay the excellent work the rest of the cast does to establish the stakes and emotional realness that lets the batshittery of the play’s antics mean something.
Zero time is spent talking about boys who are cute; these bowlers worry about strikes, spares, themselves, and each other. Shyama Iyer’s Ellen worries her top tier skills came at too high a cost. Zoe Greenwald’s Riley obsesses over each frame. Mary McNeill’s Karina struggles to let go of a grudge she’s holding against Cassidy (Catherine Young) who in turn bonds with Paula Lockhart’s Pearl about being in therapy. There is one character hung up on romance — Becca Willenbrink’s Sarah — who longs for Anna the Soccer Player (Mackenzie Kasbaum). Refreshingly the two women don’t need to come out or battle anti-queer oppression. This romance is just a typical early adult relationship with mixed messages, awkward first dates, and a couple someones pining for a good make-out sesh.
This show is a standout in the crowded field of Louisville theater, but it is still clearly a workshop production. The character arcs are just a little unfinished, and perhaps a few of the more didactic speeches could be worked into the show more organically. By the end of the performance, the action has gone completely off the rails. It’s wonderful, but it lacks the seamless quality of Grisanti’s other works.
Or maybe that’s the point? Maybe being reasonable doesn’t make sense. In a world of mad men, perhaps a sane woman’s only option is to go crazy.
Regardless, there will no doubt be a smoother and savvier versions of this script. It will likely thread the needle of balancing character, spectacle and feminism better than the current draft. I hope it retains the bonkers sensibility that makes this workshop production so endearing, and doesn’t do too good a job of making the script reasonable or nuanced.
Bowling for Beginners continues at the Commonwealth Theatre Center, 1123 Payne Street, until August 4. The August 2 and 3 performances start at 9:30, and the August 4 performance starts at 7:30. Tickets are $15, and can be purchased online or at the door.
Bowling for Beginners was supported by a Sports in Society Micro-Grant from Vanderbilt University.