Encore Michigan

Kickshaw’s ‘Ding Dongs’ is part comedy and part thriller

Review March 31, 2019 Kym Reinstadler

ANN ARBOR – Ding Dong is the sound your home’s doorbell makes. It can also describe who’s come to call.

At least that’s the case in Ding Dongs, Or What is the Penalty in Portugal? an unusual play that’s part-comedy, part-thriller. The show is produced by Kickshaw Theatre and continues through April 14 in the gallery at TrustArt Studios, 7885 Jackson Road.

This 75-minute play was written by Brenda Withers, also an actress, who is best known as co-author of the play Matt & Ben, a spoof on the friendship of actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

The play starts out simply enough. Jovial married couple Natalie and Joe (portrayed by Casaundra Freeman and Daniel A. Helmer) ring the doorbell of a suburban home and ask the bleary-eyed, pajama-clad resident, Redelmo Smith, (Dan Johnson), if they can enter and have a look around for old times sake. Joe explains that his parents used to own the place and he grew up there.

Redelmo — unshaven and seemingly in need of a strong cut of coffee — is taken aback by the couple’s forwardness. He clearly wants them off his stoop and out of his life, but is too polite to directly say so.

In the test of wills that ensues, the couple not only wheedle their way into Redelmo’s house, they wheedle into his psyche and toy with it.

By the time the postman delivers the first of four packages addressed to Natalie and Joe, we know the couple has no intention of leaving. And when they ask Redelmo for a knife, ostensibly to open the box, a chill runs through the audience. Redelmo is not safe in his own home.

On the surface, the couple’s comments seem harmless. (Who erased the pencil lines that served as Joe’s growth chart on from the window casing? Why was a guest room added if Redelmo doesn’t want any houseguests? If Joe says his bedroom was the living room, who is Redelmo to challenge?)

An uncomfortable intensity surges beneath these and other conversations, despite dialogue that is often funny. Details never come into focus, yet it does become clear, that some political or social catastrophe has befallen the couple. They’ve been forced to flee their home. And now they want Redelmo’s. If he doesn’t give it up, the couple infers there will be violence — and we absolutely believe it.

To be sure, there’s a surreal, absurdist quality to this plot. But three superb acting performances from Freeman, Helmer and Johnson effectively create a scenario in which we witness a psyche under siege.

Johnson’s Redelmo is on the defensive for the entire play. His confusion, anger, compassion, fear and terror are palpable.

But the performance that steals the show is Freeman’s Natalie, who bubbles with good cheer but possesses a menacing will of steal. She may be an uninvited guest but she’s in charge.

The play’s dramatic climax requires razor-sharp precision between the three actors. It is very well played and will take your breath away.

Director Lynn Lammers’ set of a contemporary suburban house is simple but effective. Sudden back lighting of windows at the show’s conclusion suggest the randomness of human suffering and underscore the uneasy realization that the places we love could quickly be taken from us.

Click here for show days, times and details.