TheaTour!: The Mishler Theatre

I generally try to keep myself and my personal experiences as far away from this blog as possible. After all, there are more enough self-obsessed Internet “writers” to go around, so why add my voice to the whiny chorus?

But grant me this moment of divulsion! In addition to curating this blog, I perform, and my current gig is taking me on a whirlwind tour of the American Northeast, Midwest, and Canada. The show in question is based on that classic children’s book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and is produced by TheatreWorksUSA. (By the way, the opinions reflected herein do not represent those of TheatreWorksUSA or its employees. Gosh, that was fun, wasn’t it?)

The madcap pace of life on the road is an awesome hoot, and a major part of that fun is the sheer volume of new spaces to which we are exposed. A single week can contain several different theaters, all of varying history and style. For a theater nerd like me (and you, I presume? I mean, why else would you be here?) it’s a thrilling chocolate-box grab-bag of architectural treats and surprises.

Living in New York, one quickly becomes familiar with the major (and not-so-major) venues that speckle town. And, New York provincialism being what it is, the idea that those theaters constitute the entirety of the American theater inevitably infects even the most openminded theatergoer.

But nothing could be farther from the truth. Turns out that unsung theaters gems dot our land’s Interstates, back roads, and small towns. And: I am here to tell you about them! With that, I hereby begin the oh-so-exciting “TheaTour!” series. (Exclamation points enliven even the dullest of topics. Right, Oliver!, Oklahoma!, and Snoopy!!!?)

Today’s entree is the spectacular Mishler Theatre, Altoona, PA’s glorious take on the classic, Broadway space of the early 20th Century. We of Mouse/Cookie were fortunate enough to open our show at this treasure, and boy did we enjoy it, from one sumptuousness wing to the other.

Some history: According to the Mishler employees nice enough to show me around, the theater was a holdout from the Vaudeville Circuit. But like many a 42nd Street space, legit performance eventually gave way to the grime and sleaze of movies, then X-rated fare. The theater was slated for demolition in 1965, but local arts groups purchased the space a spruced it up with an exquisite refurbishment.

Here are some shots of the theater’s current state. First, note the elegant draping of the orchestra pit and the ornate, cherub-y boxes. (Don’t even think about trying to sit there during a show—are all privately owned.)

The superior plasterwork is also worth checking out.

The view from the mezzanine is pretty great. (The balcony, used mostly for tech purposes, is set with wooden planks instead of the red seats used everywhere else.)

Then there’s the chandelier, which was purchased in New York or Hollywood—the story varies based on which local is giving you the history

Backstage, a vintage hemp system runs the flies. Our tech supervisor assured us it’s a bitch to operate, but boy does it set this nerdy heart aflutter.

And then there’s the exterior: classic, classy, appropriate.

Stunning, right?

The Mishler crew assured us that the theater is most definitely haunted. Would that I, too, could wander such beautiful halls in the next life…


Favorite Moment: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”

Sometimes, dead silence is the loudest applause.

Indeed, the best moments in theatergoing—staggering moments, spine-tingling moments—often cast a heavy, suspended quiet, not a clappy rumble. There sits the audience, overwhelmed and totally involved, the noisy slapping of hands the last of its concerns.

Such an earned, weighted silence came towards the end of Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the rollicking and sweet and beautiful new comedy now at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, soon to greet New Yorkers at Lincoln Center Theater. Kristine Nielsen, playing the frustrated, underloved Sonia, gets a quietly soaring moment that, at the performance I attended, sucked the wind out of the theater. Having attended a costume party the night before, and having been a smash success as “Maggie Smith,” and having finally—finally!—stepped out of the shadow of her movie star sister (Masha, Sigourney Weaver), Sonia fields a phone call from a man who is asking her out.

That’s never happened before.

Sonia handles the man with her typical self-depricating fatalism: No, no, she can’t see him Saturday, so sorry. She’s busy. Yes, she’s quite busy.

Another door shut.

They keep talking.

But… but…

She pauses, jokes, “rechecks her planner.” Maybe, well, maybe.

No, not maybe, yes.

As handled by Nielsen, the moment is momentous and heartbreaking. A woman is offered a surprise gift, and, fighting habit and comfort, says yes.

And when the phone monologue ends, you don’t clap. No, what you’ve witnessed is too intimate for that.

You just sit.

What could be better?

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by Christopher Durang
Directed by Nicholas Martin
McCarter Theatre, through October 14

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Pictured: Shalita Grant, Kristine Nielsen and David Hyde Pierce

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