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'Triple Espresso' dispenses a barrel of laughs


January 20, 2009

"Triple Espresso" is, according to its press materials, a show where you laugh all the way through, almost non-stop.

Now that I've seen it, I agree! I’ve never laughed so much in less than two hours. My sides didn’t ache, but it was close. We were still giggling at dinner.

The woman sitting next to me at the Herberger Theater Center's Stage West commented, at the end of the performance, "I'm exhausted."

Her son, who was about 8, hadn't wanted to come, but he, too was LOL (laughing out loud) the whole way through.

"Triple Espresso" is both the name of the show and the company that produces it, said Bill Partlan, associate professor of theater at ASU, who is its director.

The play has been running in Minneapolis, where it originated, for 12 years with no signs of slowing down. It just finished an 11-year run in San Diego, and it has been presented in Chicago, Detroit, Dublin, London, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Seattle, and has been a hit in Flemish and German adaptations as well. It will play in Phoenix through Feb. 8.

So what is "Triple Espresso" and why is it so funny?

It's part vaudeville, part magic show, part slapstick, and part pathos.

And, if you can imagine yourself singing "Home on the Range" during the play, watching corny magic tricks, and hoping you won't be singled out for embarrassment by the actors, then you can see why it is such a good time.

It's the story of three guys who try to make it in show biz, and suffer the single most embarrassing moment ever broadcast on live television -- to the whole nation, on top of it all. (They give you a hint of what that moment was.)

It endures because it's a universal story of friends who manage to survive a disaster, and the lesson that friendship can survive a disaster even if it's man-made.

"You end up pulling for these three guys, even as they fail to gain show business success," Partlan said.

Partlan became involved when he attended one of the first productions in Minneapolis, where he was artistic director of the Cricket Theater.

"The three writer-performers who created the piece – Bill Arnold, Michael Pearce Donley and Bob Stromberg – got together over breakfast one day and decided to write something they could do together. They gave themselves a month. At the first performance, in a church in Minneapolis, 600 people showed up. They had such an enthusiastic response that one of my board members suggested that I go. I did, and I laughed the entire evening."

Partlan offered the three a slot in the Cricket Theater's upcoming season, and "Triple Espresso" ran for eight weeks, breaking every box office record.

"That's the response you hope for, but you rarely get," Partlan said.

Partlan joined Arnold, Donley and Stromberg, and Dennis Babcock, executive producer, to form the Triple Espresso Company "to ensure that it would have a future life," Partlan said.

Because the playwrights also are the actors and, with Partlan and Babcock as the producers and directors, "we don't need permission from the writers to make changes," Partlan said. "What keeps it alive is that it is a living, breathing organism, not a museum piece. We've been able to grow within it."

At the various locations, a pool of 34 performers trained by the original writers and Partlan present the play. (For the Phoenix run, Arnold is here to play Buzz Maxwell.) "We make adaptations for every city we go to," Partlan said. "It's all scripted but it feels improvised."

(You'll hear jokes about Yuma and 'Guy-la Bend' in the Phoenix production, as well as a quip about the desert heat.)

Arnold, Donley and Stromberg are still surprised that "Triple Espresso" has been a hit in Europe and the on the West Coast. "They never thought it would fly outside the Midwest," Partlan said. "They never thought they'd have to teach anyone else to do this."

Part of the reason the play keeps going is because of repeat visitors, Partlan said. "People enjoy it and they bring someone else. Anyone seems to be able to enjoy it. It entertains both teenagers and adults."

Though the play has changed a great deal since the beginning – all references to snow in Minneapolis were taken out, for example, new songs have been introduced, and the mime segment was changed to shadow puppetry – "Triple Espresso" is the same at its core.

We get to laugh with, and at, Hugh Butternut, Buzz Maxwell and Bobby Bean (all coffee - get it? Yuk yuk) tell their rags-to-rags story.

Performances at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe St., Phoenix, are at 7:30 p.m., Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 8. Ticket prices range from $23-$45, with rush sales available on day of show. To purchase tickets call (602) 252-8497, or go to www.tripleespresso.com.

Just remember two things if you go – watch out for Bobby Bean's guitar, and don't sit in the front row.