photographs by Barry Wisdom
Got funny? When B Street Theatre Producing Artistic Director Buck Busfield needs to make ’em laugh, he’s got himself a deep bench of tried-and-tested company members to call to the plate for a grand-slam guffaw.
Of those accomplished actors, perhaps none have a higher LOL average than David Pierini, whose insane lack of vanity, underplayed delivery and awesome arsenal of expressions and gestures can just as easily evoke yucks from post-modern yuppies catching a B Street Mainstage or B3 show, as bring about uncontrollable bouts of milk-squirting nose giggles from a grade-school Fantasy Theatre audience.
But in his current role, as Mr. Scary in the Family Series production of “Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!” – which plays Nov. 20-Dec. 26 – B Street veteran Pierini is the show’s designated straight man, grounding a cast of zanies charged with bringing author Barbara Park’s juvenile characters to funtastic life.
“That can be hard for a man like me,” said Pierini, a natural comic actor who learned early on (he joined the company in 1989) that being a B Street company man occasionally meant not taking a pie-in-the-face for the team.
“When you’re in a show with a Greg Alexander, a Scott Craig Jones or a Rick Kleber, you realize they’re going to be the funny guy. Every so often you have to take the role of reacting to the hilarity around you,” Pierini said. “In ‘Junie B.,’ I’ll be the guy who ‘stays at home.’”
“Staying at home,” a euphemism “Junie B.” director Michael Stevenson attributes to Busfield, is just as essential in staging a successful comedy as the actor who rubs his bare belly or delivers the can’t-miss laugh line.
“Somebody has to be the normal guy so all the craziness can be around him,” said Stevenson. “Dave’s always looking to serve the play.”
While Pierini may be playing it straight, there is no shortage of attention-getting comic actors in “Junie B.,” said Pierini.
“We’ve got John Lamb, one of the quirkiest, funniest people on stage,” said Pierini. “Whether in rehearsal or on break, he’s usually cracking me up. You can throw John into any show and he’ll steal it.”
Lamb, a B Street veteran who was recently featured in Capital Stage’s “Mauritius” (directed by Stevenson), is cast here as a young classmate of the titular character, who’s played by Brittni Barger, another actor Pierini said has no trouble generating laughs from adults as well as children.
“As Junie B. Jones, Brittni is Courtney Love meets Jane Austen,” said Stevenson.
“It’s a fun group with me and John being the elder statesmen, if you will,” said Pierini.
Busfield counts Pierini, who turned 40 this year, as among the B Street’s strong core of all-purpose, capable-of-anything actors, calling him “the consummate company man.”
“Dave is wonderful,” said Busfield, “a triple-threat who can act, write and direct – an MVP. He’s a friend, too.”
For Stevenson, who’s known Pierini since 1997, “Junie B.” marks their third collaboration as director-actor.
“I’ve put him in all kinds of parts,” said Stevenson. “He has incredible versatility. He knows theater so well, has amazing comic timing, but can just as easily sit back and be the straight guy – he can play just about everything.”
“And he’s terrific to have around,” Stevenson added, citing the actor’s relaxed demeanor, imagination and sense of humor as qualities that make him a welcome addition to any set.
“If I can put him in a show, I do,” said Stevenson.
Stevenson said that casting Pierini in “Junie B.” was a no-brainer, given the actor’s history with Fantasy Theatre.
“He’s a writer himself, and he understands the kind of humor children respond to. Enormously skilled, he has a great sense of make-believe, he can play the fantastic or the ridiculous and really mean it.”
Pierini is equally enthusiastic about his director, noting his patience with “a bunch of adults playing kids, acting stupid and just laughing during the entire rehearsal.”
“He’s Mr. Positive all the time,” Pierini said of Stevenson, who most recently directed the thriller “Mauritius” at Capital Stage. “He’s just really enthusiastic and positive and it’s a really good environment.”
For Pierini, who guesstimates he’s worked on some 50 shows for Busfield’s various B Street incarnations (“Probably more.”), Stevenson’s offer to act in “Junie B.” was an early Christmas present.
“I was itching to do another Family Series show because it’s been a few years, and there are definite benefits to the Family Series performance schedule,” said Pierini, who noted that Family Series cast members “get Sunday nights off.”
“It’s nice to have evenings free in this business!” Pierini laughed. “There are friends to see, you can catch up on TV … I’ve been looking forward to this schedule.”
While the show’s performance schedule is a bonus to be sure, Pierini said there are particular joys in playing to holiday audiences.
“Audiences for holiday shows seem to be in a better mood,” said Pierini. “There’s just more of an excitement in the air. Though, as we get closer to the actual holiday, you can feel the pressure the audience members are under, and everyone has to work a little harder. That week of Christmas, their minds are spinning. They’re thinking, ‘I have to get this or that gift,’ and you have to get their attention. Then there’s that moment in the show when they have that nice release.”
The kids in the audience, however, are all about living in the moment, said Pierini. “I’ll tell you what, performing for a children’s audience can be a riot, and for me to see them get excited and lose it, and start to laugh is great,” said Pierini. “It does makes me have to work harder and keep focused, but the kids are so much fun, their reactions so immediate.”
JUST THE FACTS
WHAT: The B Street Theatre Family Series production of “Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!” adapted by Allison Gregory, based on the “Junie B. Jones” series by Barbara Park; for children ages 4 and older
WHEN: Previews 1 p.m. Nov. 20; opens 4 p.m. Nov. 20; plays 1 and 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays Nov. 20-Dec. 26, 2010; run time: approximately 90 minutes including intermission
WHERE: B Street Theatre Family Series Stage, 2727 B St., Sacramento, Calif.
WHO: Directed by Michael Stevenson; featuring Brittni Barger as Junie B. Jones, Stephanie Altholz as Tattletale May, Megan O’Neill as Lucille, David Pierini as Mr. Scary, John Lamb as Sheldon, Andrew J. Perez as José, and Jerrel O’Neal as Herb
HOW MUCH: $22 adults; $15 student rush, $10 preview tickets
FOR INFO: Call (916) 443-5300; www.bstreettheatre.org