John Kolvenbach’s Stand Up if You’re Here Tonight, which is having its world premiere at the Harbor Stage Company in Wellfleet, is an extraordinarily intimate experience. The one-man show (with peripheral help from real and planted audience members) features the company’s artistic director, Robert Kropf, as a kind of self-help guru who speaks directly to the audience, inviting its continual participation, with no ostensible purpose except to make that theatrical connection.
And what a connection he makes! The play is subtle, yet uproarious. You will be chanting, clapping, standing, sitting, and magnetically attracted to the interactive stew he creates, from his clothing — a gray suit with no tie, and a conspicuous pair of suspenders — to the nearly bare stage, with its raw wood floor, large and square, and a table and black dial phone at its center, as well as the undressed wings around it, with spare furniture and equipment unceremoniously lying about.
Kropf is continually on the move, making eye and/or spoken contact with nearly everyone in the audience, spewing out digression after digression, always deferring what is soon supposed to begin but never actually does. He’s doing it all for us — to help us, or, perhaps, to help himself, in a mission of self-knowledge and -examination that has something to do with our states of mind or contentedness or mindfulness. If his spiel has a point, it has to do with theater itself, which is why, with Covid dragging its ugly heels, actor and company and audience are there in the first place.
It’s kind of a shaggy-dog story, which naturally turns one’s focus to the process of getting there (where?), and, in doing this, Kolvenbach’s lines and serpentine narrative logic, as well as Kropf’s seductive, relentlessly soft-spoken performance, are downright brilliant.
Kropf, one of the four founding and managing artist-partners of the Harbor Stage, is a frequent presence in its productions. He has propulsive, occasionally explosive energy as an actor, but some of his most riveting performances are those in which he holds back — most recently as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In Stand Up if You’re Here Tonight, his unnamed “Man” is equal parts weariness and yearning. He’s a walking, talking representation of our collective pandemic personality.
What an honor and privilege that Kolvenbach chose the Harbor Stage for the world premiere of this play, which he directed himself. At another point in time, it might seem like more of a stunt than a dramatic experience. But now, in this summer of the Provincetown cluster and the national vaccination tango, it’s the perfect elixir.
Kolvenbach’s connection to Wellfleet goes back many years. Some highlights: Sister Play, starring company stalwarts Brenda Withers and Stacy Fischer, premiered at the Harbor Stage in 2014. His play Fabuloso premiered at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater in 2008, and his international hit Love Song (with Kropf starring) played at WHAT in 2007.
Going into the Harbor Stage today, for the first time since 2019, is a mildly unnerving experience. There are fewer seats, everyone is masked (except the performers, of course), and all schmoozing and socializing is directed outdoors. Unlike the Provincetown Theater and WHAT, the Harbor Stage has chosen to produce its two-play season indoors (next up is Brenda Withers’s Dindin). Since so much emotion is predicated on that fact — that Stand Up if You’re Here Tonight is the first indoor production of real theater to be had locally in a long, long time — it’s better to leave any more specifics of the play to each new audience. As a meditation on the connection between the man onstage and his theatrical companions in the audience, Kolvenbach’s play is full of joyful surprises.
And, along with the joy and laughter, there’s that Covid weariness. When will it end? The ambivalence between celebration and dread is contained within the play and in Kropf’s marvelous stage-lit presence. If you’re lucky enough to sample this re-emergence of the Outer Cape’s artist-run theater company, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
The event: Stand Up if You’re Here Tonight, by John Kolvenbach
The time: Thursday, Aug. 5 through Saturday, Aug. 7, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 8, 5 p.m.; Friday, Aug. 13, Saturday, Aug. 14, and Wednesday, Aug. 18 through Friday, Aug. 20, 7:30 p.m.
The place: Harbor Stage Company, 15 Kendrick Ave., Wellfleet
The cost: $25 at harborstage.org or 508-349-6800