Friday, April 22, 2011

Theater reviews: The Country Wife, Madonna & Me

Posted By on Fri, Apr 22, 2011 at 2:33 PM

Regularly scheduled Winthrop Eagle baseball games definitely made the cut in the listings of Come-See-Me events in Rock Hill, April 7-16. So did Quilts of York County, Catawba Pow Wow, Sundaes with Glen & Mother Goose, Brunch at the Women’s Club, Barbeque Competition No Pork, Herps Alive Reptiles & Amphibians, and Frog Hoppin Fun. A pretty wide Charlotte Shouts range for an annual spring festival.

Yet the theatre presence in the lineup was suspiciously capricious. Yes, Winthrop University’s production of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife, opening on April 13, made it into the listings every night it ran. But the US Premiere of Tommy Kearney’s Madonna and Me, with the playwright himself in attendance for the entire run, was completely slept on, though the Edge Theatre production ran at South Pointe High School from April 7-10. And what about Belles, the maiden effort of the new all-woman WIP Productions? That comedy ran downtown at the Community Performance Center during the last three nights of Come-See-Me. Unacknowledged!

With their lame Frog logo and their lackadaisical publicity effort, I’ve got one pointed question to aim at Come-See-Me officials in the wake of their 48th annual celebration. Outside of a three-mile radius of Rock Hill, do you really expect people to come to the Come-See-Me Festival?

So during Come-See-Me, Sue and I attended one event in Rock Hill that was part of the festival and one that wasn’t. Of the two, I was most keen on seeing The Country Wife, my favorite Restoration comedy – and the wickedest I’ve ever read aside from Wycherley’s own Plain-Dealer. Winthrop’s production marked the first time I’d seen any Wycherley work staged, and it would take a lot of incompetence and ill-will to spoil this bawdy confection.

That nearly happened in Act 1 of a five-act show that clocked in at 2:30 plus intermission, but by Act 2, I had moved from Row K to Row F. Nearly all the dialogue became audible and intelligible; the jaundiced world of Wycherley was mine again. If the set designs by Anna Sartin were far from her chef d’oeuvre, costumes by Janet Gray gave us a resplendent view of the period, whether they were for the 17th Century nobles, the ladies, the sparks, the servants, the quack doctor, or the fop.

Few of the characters retained the flavor that has lingered vividly in my mind since my first encounter with them in grad school. Briana Parks’s interpretation of Mrs. Margery Pinchwife, the title role, was less cunning and salacious than I recalled, and David Hutto Jr. made her possessive husband, Mr. Pinchwife, far more bellowing and sanctimonious than a former whoremaster needed to be. Such variations, however, are well within the latitude we should give a director and his cast.

The two disfigurements from director Andrew Vorder Bruegge that consistently annoyed me were the rogue hero, Horner, and the modish fop, Mr. Sparkish. Horner has his confederate, the quack doctor, spread the rumor around London that, due to an unfortunate surgical accident, the former rake is now a eunuch. The aim of this stratagem is to give London husbands reason to let their guards down so that Horner can seduce their wives. But Bruegge had Nathan Rouse change his voice and his entire posture when he switched from the true serial seducer Horner to the purported eunuch – from swashbuckler to wheedler – no matter how implausible the situation. This Johnny Depp/Tim Conway take on Horner, executed nicely enough by Rouse, diminished both the deceiver and the blindness of those he deceived.

And surely Sparkish could be allowed some intelligence and nuance beyond what was bestowed on him by the perennially declaiming Shareef Elkady. His deceivers, Ann Marie Calabro as fiancée Alithea and Jed Cockerell as Harcount, were only slightly more pallid than the worldly Londoners that Wycherley put on the page. Nearly on the mark were Zade Patterson and Bailey Robinson as Sir Jaspar and Lady Fidget, the prime targets of Horner’s eunuch magic until he is smitten by Margery.

Easiest to enjoy was Dennis DeJesus as the old Quack, over-the-top skeptical that Horner’s scheme would work and over-the-top astonished by how spectacularly well it does.

At the Madonna & Me premiere, only one of the seven performers passed the playwright’s muster in simulating a proper Liverpool accent. So the thicker the accent of the other performers, the more difficult it was to decode what was being spoken and what was happening. Or to care.

We followed the intimacies and hostilities, loyalties and betrayals of a circle of friends – with various dreams, interests, and sexual orientations – as they reached adulthood during Madonna’s Material Girl heyday in the early 90s. Luckily, our narrator, Adam, sported one of the lightest accents, courtesy of Jay Kistler, a winsome performer when he addressed the audience. Adam was also the one Liverpudlian struggling with the dilemma of revealing his homosexuality to his working-class buds, so the warm core – and the autobiographical truth – of Kearney’s work emerged relatively unscathed. It also helped that Haley Phillips, the one actress who nailed the accent, portrayed Paula, Adam’s most steadfast friend while struggling with a bunch of tumultuous issues of her own.

Even my wife Sue, a hardcore fan of PBS’s Brit comedy imports whenever she gets to see them, had difficulties comprehending much of the other repartee. She also has a pet peeve about choppy, episodic scripts that I normally don’t share. In this case, I think she has a point. An opened-up film version of Madonna & Me, with honest-to-god Liverpool actors and settings, would likely yield a richer, more textured experience – provided that it were packaged with American subtitles.

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