All heck is breaking loose at the Lacombe Golf and Country Club in the off season.
Men are swinging from bed sheets and running around in bunny underwear. Women are hiding from their husbands and engaging in the sort of harebrained schemes that bring Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance to mind.
In other words, it’s just another night at Cow Patti Theatre Company. . .
Central Alberta’s only professional dinner theatre has been successfully running in its second Lacombe incarnation for the past four years, bringing in seasoned actors from across Canada to appear in locally-produced farces, staged at the clubhouse.
Five actors, each with up to 30 years of experience, were flown in from Toronto and as far as Fredericton, N.B., for the last play, Who’s Under Where?, by Marcia Kash and Douglas E. Hughes.
All performed in various actors’ equity productions, from weighty Shakespearean productions at Stratford, Ont., to television commercials and high-profile TV serials and movies. But they parked their method-acting techniques at the door upon arriving in Lacombe.
Instead, their gifts for comic timing and Benny Hill-like pratfalls were fully tapped into for the lightweight Cow Patti show that ran for five weeks before wrapping on Dec. 14.
The plot line about two sneaky lingerie designers, their jealous husbands, and a half-naked male model, was “way, way over the top,” said Patric Masurkevitch. The actor portrayed buffoonish designer Senior Bruno Fruferelli with an Italian accent thicker than parmigiano cheese.
Who’s Under Where? presented a fun seven weeks of employment (including two weeks of rehearsals) for Masurkevitch, a married Torontonian and father of two.
He spent many seasons at the Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., and Charlottetown Festival in P.E.I., but didn’t know exactly where Lacombe was on the map before agreeing to play Fuferelli.
But he was eager to take on another acting adventure for pay.
“Where you work is where you go. Actors are self-employed, so we’re always looking for something,” said Masurkevitch. He (along with the other out-of-province thespians) was taken on a day trip to Banff and the Rocky Mountains before returning to Ontario. His next production, Melancholy Play at Toronto’s The Empty Room Theatre, will be a definitely departure from Who’s Under Where?, which was full of baffling comic mayhem.
But catching all the nonsensical details didn’t matter.
The dinner theatre audience that gathered one Wednesday night in November — nearly a full-house crowd, including ladies from the Red Hat Society and a local non-profit group reaping some proceeds from ticket sales — were there purely for the chuckles and guffaws.
And there were plenty to be had.
“We came because we’re golfers, but now we’re hooked. It’s a fun evening out. The shows are fabulous and the food is good,” concluded Cow Patti patron Judy Kemmis, from Rimbey, at the last farce.
Her friend Pat Cox compared the quality of the plays to those produced by Calgary theatre companies she’s attended.
Cow Patti founder and producer AnnaMarie Lea credits the “fantastic” professional actors who she hires for allowing her to put on “top-notch” entertainment in a community of 12,000 people.
She feels it’s the consistent ability to make people laugh that’s key to her theatre group’s success.
“The world and people’s lives are so full of tragedy. We could all shed a tear at the drop of a hat for private or personal matters … so we stick to laughter,” said Lea.
While some theatre groups aspire to put on experimental plays or serious productions with a message, no extra brain power is needed for Cow Patti fare — which goes straight for the funny bone. “We give the people what they want,” Lea added.
Drawing audiences from Stettler, Red Deer and beyond, Cow Patti is a rare entrepreneurial achievement — a financially successful company with an 18-year track-record for putting on shows in small communities without relying on government grants.
In large part, it remains a family affair. Lea picks the scripts and directors, produces and acts in each show. Her husband designs and builds the sets, and their four kids lend hands in various ways.
Lea, a Calgary native, tread the boards professionally in Vancouver and Yellowknife before starting Cow Patti in Lacombe in 1996 for lifestyle reasons: Proceeds from shows at the Lacombe Golf and Country Club allowed her to stay home while raising her children, who now range in age from 14 to 23 years.
Since her husband, Tom, was away piloting commercial passenger flights to northern Canada, somebody had to stay home with the family, said Lea.
The actress, who lists among her credits the 2008 feature film Death Race with Jason Statham (she played a nasty teller) and Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs with Janet Wright of Corner Gas fame (at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre), also sought to make her own acting opportunities in a small town that, otherwise, wouldn’t have offered any.
With its comedy-first mandate, Cow Patti became a local favourite in Lacombe for five seasons before Lea had to close up shop and move east with her spouse after he was transferred by his airline to Ontario in 2000. Cow Patti Theatre reopened in Cornwall and operated successfully there until 2010. Then Lea’s husband was transferred back to Alberta.
Although his family and their theatre company returned with him to Lacombe, Lea wasn’t sure what kind of homecoming to expect. She was heartened to discover “people didn’t forget about Cow Patti.”
In fact, David Clark, former general manager of the Lacombe Golf and Country Club, immediately invited the group to use the facility again for its shows — which was a huge boon to starting anew in Central Alberta, said Lea.
She remains touched by this support. As Clark passed away recently from an illness, Cow Patti is dedicating this season to his memory, along with that of the late Richard Bauer, who acted in several Cow Patti shows.
“I do this to make a paycheque, but it’s the people I meet and work with who fill my life,” said Lea, who’s always aimed to give something back to the community through her company. That’s why Cow Patti regularly does benefit performances for dozens of smaller charities and non-profit groups, such as Medical Mercy Canada, Grammalink-Africa and the Lending Cupboard.
In the 2013-14 season of three plays, the group raised more than $47,000 for various organizations.
Who’s Under Where itself raised $23,500 for charities through eight benefit performances. A portion of every dinner theatre ticket sold for benefit performances is earmarked for designated charities. The groups’ causes are also publicized at these shows, and they can hold fundraising silent auctions and gain from a Plop Drop raffle.
Lea takes care of all the organizational details, as well as marketing and ticket sales. It makes for very long days while a show is in progress.
“I used to tell the kids, ‘OK, Mom is going into Crazy Week’ before we open a show. … But it’s all been very gratifying,” said Lea. Considering the theatre group can only use the golf club from November to the end of March, she decided to simplify things this season by staging two Cow Patti plays with longer runs rather than three with shorter ones.
Next up is The Ladies Foursome, by Norm Foster, which runs from March 4 to 29. The new round of comic mayhem should be a particular hit with golfers.
For more information, visit www.cowpatti.com.