Friday, October 29, 2010

review of *The Cemetery Club*

at the Civic's Studio Theatre through Nov. 14

As a script, The Cemetery Club has some weaknesses. The three main characters are almost (not quite) reducible to types. It's not hard to predict one of the main plot developments, and you can just tell which debates will transpire and which characters will be on which side. The ending leans toward the maudlin.

After reading it, Bobo was expecting an episode the The Golden Girls, just focused more firmly on death (but with the character types and one-liner rimshots pretty much intact).

The fact that Cemetery Club reaches past that level is due to a couple of factors: the immediacy of live theater, and the talents of this production's three merry widows: Melody Deatherage, Mary Starkey and Susan Hardie. 

At one point, Tom Heppler (as the eligible widower who is the cynosure of every widow in Ivan Menchell's play) is making small talk in the living room of one of the widows. He gestures toward a pipe rack — anything to make small talk — and mutters something about how he didn't know that her deceased husband was a smoker. On the page, it's just a stage direction; but in Heppler and Deatherage's hands, it becomes a moment. The pipes are all that remain of Murray; both onstage characters, in their different ways, acknowledge the loss. A lot is left unspoken, and is all the more powerful for that — powerful, because the audience has to process the significance for themselves. A prop that we'd overlooked becomes the focus of grief, and Heppler, Deatherage, and director Heather McHenry-Kroetch — all three — handled the moment with subtlety.

Or the second scene: Each widow talking to her husband's gravestone. On the page, except for some cross-cut conversation, it seemed straightforward. But in live performance — Bobo's only stating the obvious here — you're in the same room as three grieving women, and the emotional impact multiplies. And yet another advantage: the three gravestones remain rooted just outside the realistic living-room set. Unlike the reading experience, when you watch the Club members in action, the sense of death and dying is never far away.

Hardie has the scene-stealing role — the flirty, embittered one — and she duly steals scenes ... but not without also finding the serious side of come-hither-and-let's-have-some-fun widow on the prowl. Some of Hardie's second-act revelations were just as impressive, in their way, as her earlier flouncing and flamboyance as some kind of Jewish Dolly Parton. She acts like she owns the joint; then, when the insecurities peep through, Hardie makes them convincing too. It's a powerful performance, unlike most of Hardie's other roles, and she becomes the center of attention (when appropriate) in most of what she does.

Starkey slits her eyes in disapproval throughout — but whereas it's in genuine disapproval early on, she finds the comedy in being a killjoy later on. And Deatherage does some of the most subtle acting of her local career with Ida's understated disappointments and small victories. Her reluctance at her husband's grave — clutching her purse, she'd like to move on with her life, but she's afraid of offending him (several years dead now) — is affecting. 

Some comic three-way bickering over their ages is nearly as quick and accomplished as a bit of Marx Brothers shtick. The cast is good at doing nervous pauses and making them seem real. 

It's the little things that make a staged conversation feel lived-in, and two examples would include the un-commented on business of sugar lumps in Lucille's tea and the matter-of-fact way that she flips (in a gossipy way) through another woman's mail: She's intrusive, and almost aware of how intrusive she is, and yet neither director nor actor are going to make any intrusive comments about it. 

There are lots of understated features of this show like that. These women happen to be Jewish; they could be Presbyterian, but they happen to be Jewish. No big deal. It's not their sole, defining characteristic. Stereotypes are hinted at, but not more. Heppler has an amazing moment when he expresses disbelief over the 40 years that passed between kneeling to propose and kneeling by his wife's grave. 

McHenry-Kroetch let a couple of scene-endings fall flat, lingering too long, and there are some fixable backs-to-the-audience moments, but generally her directing lets the actors create comfortably.

Menchell wrote a well-made play (the echo, in two different contexts, of "I'll see ya when I see ya" is emotionally effective), and Bobo wishes he could write something just as accomplished. At the same time, The Cemetery Club, while satisfying and funny and sad, never quite rises above the formulaic. It's a lot of widows — pro, con and in the middle on the issue of grieving and moving on — and you can always sense the playwright's hand at work (not just in the witty one-line jokes, but in the play's overall shape). Still, it's a mostly engaging evening, and a very well acted one.

(Bobo had more to say, but he's blathered on long enough, and it's taken him a week to produce this much, and besides, as usual, he can't read most of his notes anyway.)

*West Side Story* this weekend

The fundraiser in-concert version at the Civic is virtually sold out, but you can try 325-2507.
A recent NPR interview with Stephen Sondheim (about his new book, Finishing the Hat
reveals some of his criticisms of Oscar Hammerstein and comments on Arthur Laurents' made-up slang in WSS and what Sondheim really wanted the phrase "Krup you!" to be. (Like this is some big surprise.)

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*The Elephant Man* opens at Lake City

The Elephant Man of Victorian London was Joseph Merrick (though his caretaker, Dr. Treves, called him "John"). He suffered from a combination of neurofibromatosis and Proteus Syndrome, which caused bone deformities, an unusually large skull, and warty growths scattered over his body.

The movie of 30 years ago tries to show you all that, literally. During the play, however, you're left to imagine those deformities for yourself.
Merrick used to end his letters with a poem about how he wished he'd been better made, but that a man's mind and soul are better measures of his value than his physical appearance.

The play about him by Bernard Pomerance, which won the Tony for Best Play in 1979, opens at Lake City Playhouse tonight. (Pomerance, now 70, lives in New Mexico.)

Directed by Marina Kalani. Lake City artistic director George Green plays Dr. Frederick Treves, the Victorian-era London physician who examines and cares for Merrick (Christopher Lamb). Bill Caisely plays the head of the hospital, Sean Cahill plays the freak-show manager who exploits Merrick, and Anne Lillian Mitchell plays the famous actress who becomes Merrick's first female friend. Seven other actors complete the cast of 12.

Opening tonight and running Thurs-Sat at 7:30 pm and Sun at 2 pm. Top ticket price is $17. Call (208) 667-1323.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

review of *The 39 Steps*

at Interplayers through Oct. 30

It's funnier if you're funny without showing us that you know you're funny, you know?
The 39 Steps — a spoof of the veddy British 1935 spy-caper movie by Alfred Hitchcock, performed with just four actors with a lot of props and quick changes — certainly signals its comic intentions.
An innocent man gets himself ensnared in international intrigue, chased over loch and heather (he's in Scotland, you see) by policemen and double agents and a self-righteous woman who refuses to believe in his innocence. Of course, we never really think that our hero, the dapper Richard Hannay (Damon Mentzer) is going to succumb to the nefarious forces that encircle him — he has such an awfully dashing mustache, don't you know — but we're also not entirely sure how he's going to escape, either, especially with an uncooperative blonde handcuffed to him.
And it's a hoot. When the newsboy transforms into a Bobby with nightstick and then a traveling underwear salesman — all with switched hats and accents — it's delightful to watch in a clap-your-hands, jack-in-the-box surprise kind of way. When Jerry Sciarrio (in one of several dozen roles as Clown No. 1) transitions from a dignified lord of the manor to a goose-stepping, lunatic Nazi, the threat's rendered comic and harmless even as we giggle over the actor's venture into make-believe. Things happen fast, and we're invited to join in the fun: chairs become car seats, picture frames are held up to become escape hatches, audience members are invited onstage while the overworked actors rest for a while in front-row seats.

Michael Ward's set design rims the stage with bric-a-brac, and director William C. Marlowe has committed his show to a grab-a-prop-and-run operation.
Too often, the props get in the way. Oh, Marlowe loves his sight gags and sound gags — holds them and clutches them, crushes them in his arms, then ravages them and leaves them quivering, still barely alive, in the dust. In particular, the thunder-and-lightning gag that accompanies one of the play's key phrases became, with repetition, less amusing than annoying.
The action is set in the 1930s, with the Nazis threatening Europe. But when Marlowe camps up the proceedings with a disco ball or the Jeopardy theme, there's a sense that we're being condescended to — as if we couldn't enter into the comic spirit of a romp through pre-war British culture without a wink and a nod. It's funny — Hannay is faced with a serious dilemma, and that familiar quiz-show music comes over the speakers — but it's funny in terms other than the show itself is funny. And Patrick Barlow's frenzied four-actor adaptation — which refines two actors' reinterpretation of three movies' worth of revisions of the original novel — has plenty of laughs to offer all on its own, thank you very much indeed, sir.

In fact, the biggest laughs in Interplayers' production of The 39 Steps — and there are many bright spots in this show — land not because of all the wigs and props and furniture, but because of the acting. In particular, in the three-way role of femme fatale, innocent farmer's wife and skeptical love interest, Elisha Gunn is a revelation. With the opening scene's German woman of mystery, Gunn wrests multiple meanings out of single words: When she comes on to Hannay, she turns the final three syllables of "You wish to be — in-VOL-ved?" into a symphony of seduction, rubbing her thigh once up, once down, no more. She's a woman on a mission. She rolls the R's in "Richard" for so long that his name seems to tumble out the door and come back in again. For a melodramatic scene involving murder, she flops around like a stuck fish (and Marlowe hits upon an ingenious way of getting one character out from beneath a corpse). In the second act, when her third character is angry about being forced into proximity with Hannay, Gunn spits out a feigned agreement of "Yes, darling" with about six different kinds of irritability and rancor in it.
In a later sequence, as a dour Scottish farmer's wife, you might think Gunn is overdoing the skipping, barefoot ingenue bit until it pays off when she curls her toes around a chair leg, then extends them over to Hannay's side of the table for a flirty game of footsie — all while her Calvinist husband (Damon Abdallah, in one of his Clown No. 2 roles) intones a parody of saying a guilt-ridden grace, imploring our "unforgiving Father" to "beat our gluttonous thoughts and lash our lustful desires, as with a three-forked flailing stick, pressing our bestial noses to the grindstone...." Self-disdain like that is funny, especially when we see "lustful desires" going on under the dinner table.

But when you overload a show with stage business, verbal humor like that can get overshadowed. Hannay has a naive quality — slow to realize that he's been seduced or duped, easily distracted by trivia, rather vain about his appearance, willing to believe the best of others even when they're schemers — and Mentzer has pipe-clenched-in-teeth, grinning quality that lives just down the block from Dudley Do-right. His little witticisms and side comments sometimes get squashed by the insistence on scampering over to fetch the next prop.
The scene when Hannay is pushed into public speaking is an example of Marlowe's comic business over-burdening the text. The joke lies in Mentzer's character being caught in a pickle and understandably nervous about it; but a pop-up, roll-over bit of physical comedy detracts from the scene's focus (though it has to be admitted: Mentzer changes pace during the speech, improvising a rousing ovation that electrified the opening-night crowd).

Meanwhile, the two clowns generate a lot of verbal jokery. Abdallah gets comic mileage out of two different characters by making them, in different ways, almost completely unintelligible. Sciarrio's doddering hotel keeper and insane Aryan form hilarious contrasts. Abdallah can do both ends of a phone conversation; Sciarrio can imitate the ignition-cough of a '30s clunker starting up.
And this is the kind of show where the cues come in deliberately late: First you get the comic ineptitude, then you get a second joke out of the actors glaring at the sound booth. The 39 Steps proclaims its amateurishness for all to hear, though sometimes you just wish it would stop proclaiming and get on with the next chase scene and predicament.

All four actors have brilliant moments, and when they settle comfortably into the run, some of the timing issues (bobbled lines, cues that hit just a tad late) and diction problems (exaggerated German and Scottish accents aren't funny if they're completely indecipherable) will disappear.
Marlowe's 39 Steps is creative, inventive, rollicking. It just needs some editing: Sometimes, gags just need to be gagged.

(a shorter version of this review will appear on Oct. 21 in The Pacific Northwest Inlander)

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

*The 39 Steps* at Interplayers

"A little bit of James Bond, a little bit of Masterpiece Theatre, and a lot of Monty Python" — that's how director William Marlowe describes the farcical Hitchcock spoof The 39 Steps (at Interplayers through Oct. 30).

Our hero, a dashing chap called Richard Hannay (played by Damon Mentzer) finds himself up against an international spy ring after a femme fatale (Alisha Gunn) implores him to help her and then gets herself murdered in his London flat. What ensues is a wild goose chase that involves locomotives racing up to the Scottish Highlands and narrow escapes from the coppers while Hannay finds himself handcuffed to a beautiful woman (also played by Gunn, who is the sister of Brian, currently starring as Buddy Holly at the Civic).
All the other parts (and there are many dozens of them) — vaudeville performers, underwear salesmen, Bobbies, bed and breakfast operators, thugs, detectives, orators — are played by two "clowns" (Damon Abdallah and Jerry Sciarrio).
The entire show — innovated by Patrick Barlow just five years ago, though it's based on a century-old novel and the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film — needs to have a frantic and improvised feel. That's why Marlowe — in his directing debut at Interplayers, despite having worked on and off at the joint for two decades as backstage techie and as an actor — has chosen a "found props" approach: Junk will encircle the entire perimeter of Interplayers' thrust stage, with the four actors picking and choosing and making their costume changes in full view of the audience. 

Despite the show's done-on-the-fly flavor, it's
technically challenging, with 200 lighting cues
and 135 sound cues (most of them in the first act, which has Hannay clinging to a speeding locomotive as he tries to outwit the coppers).

Barlow's script is almost verbatim to the movie, and it includes several allusions to other Hitchcock films, like North by Northwest and Rear Window. Marlowe has even incorporated a bit with a birdcage (and guess which 1963 film starring Tippi Hedren that alludes to).

A lot of the sound effects are done by the actors, with Sciarrio vocally imitating the sounds of a 1930s clunker starting up.

Yeah, but will it be funny? Marlowe says that several times during rehearsals, "we had to stop to wipe away tears."

This weekend: Thurs-Sat at 7:30 pm, Sun at 2 pm; continues through Oct. 30. Tickets: $15-$21. Interplayers is at 174 S. Howard St. Call 455-PLAY. Visit the theater listings under "Stage Thrust" in the Bloglander at

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Thursday, October 07, 2010

*South Pacific* review

Bobo saw the touring production last night at the INB Center (where it closes on Saturday night) and whew, did he have a lot to say about it.
Bottom line: You will never in your lifetime see *South Pacific* done better than it is being done here. Bart Sher's direction and David Pittsinger's singing are the big stars, but design elements are exquisite too.
Tickets and info here.
Bobo's blow-by-blow review is at here.