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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Lives of the Saints
An Evening of Short Comedies
By Elyse SommerHere, at last, is the a good time was had by all show that Berkshire Theatre Festival audiences have been waiting for all summer. As he did last summer with An Empty Plate at the Café du Grand Boeuf (A ComicTragedy in 7 Courses), director John Rando has once again capped off the BTF Main Stage season with a sparkling comic evening. The Lives of the Saints could well be subtitled A Comic Look at Life's Serious Concerns in 5 Courses. The five playlets, the last of which is used as the title, have all the Ivesian trademarks: witty, biting and raunchy word play, dark thoughts peeking forth beneath the verbal and visual fun and what Rando in a recent CurtainUp interview summed up as "buoyancy."
Things get under way with Babel's In Arms in which we are introduced to two cave men named Gorph (Danton Stone) and Cannapflit (Arnie Burton) reenacting their own version of the Sysiphian myth. They grunt and groan as they shlepp a giant rectangular stone apparently with no other purpose than to put it in the right place (as dictated by a blank architectural plan). As with his unforgettable Trotsky in All In the Timing, Ives has his cavemen anticipate songs yet to be written, expressions (including the now ubiquitous F word) and objects yet to be invented. It's a turbo-powered update of Bing Crosby's and Bob Hope's famous "Road" movies. To move from the Stone Age to the Age of Civilization, add a crafty dominatrix-entrepreneur (Nancy Opel) demanding that Gorph and Cannapflit become the worker ants for a grand Tower of Babel (or is it Baybel?) development scheme, a eunuch (Stephen DeRosa) and a priestess-ambassador to God (Anne O'Sullivan). This stone age farce launches the evening's roller coaster ride through the riddle of life's meaning at the beginning of the Millennium. Like many such romps it doesn't know quite when to stop which takes some of the edge off its sharpness. This goes for some of what follows as well.
The next play, The Mystery of Twicknam Vickarage gathers the ensemble into a delicious spoof of old mysteries like Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians with dashes of Hitchcock and Masterpiece Theater Mysteries and Charles Ludlum. Stephen DeRosa, who recently co-starred in Ludlum's The Mystery of Irma Vep has a somewhat more restful role -- he has none of that show's sleight of hand costume changes and, in fact, lies stock still for most of the proceedings. This is a challenge of a new sort for the ebullient young actor who loves to talk (see our recent interview) but he brings it off to perfection -- and not to worry, he does get to talk and when he does he makes the most of it. As an example of the terrific comic details here as elsewhere, note the three bloody spots on his shirt front (they're little red ribbons worn to support the cause against AIDS).
While Twicknam Vickarage is something of a detour from the paths usually traveled by Mr. Ives, his fans will recognize new variations of familiar themes elsewhere. In Enigma Variations he once again establishes a link to well-known composers and their works (i.e. Phillip Glass Buys Bread from All In the Timing and The Art of the Fugue from Mere Mortals). It also takes us back into the world of lab coat-wearing psychologists (as in English Made Simple also from All In the Timing) -- this time via two pairs of fiendishly clever doppelgängers -- Doctor Bill 1 and Bill 2 and a matching set of dopplegänger women Bebe 1 and Bebe 2 (patients in the first go-around and then doctors). Belly-laugh funny as the word play on everything in twos is, this playlet is particularly rich in visual humor. The two sets of Bebes and Bills play it to the hilt, with Danton Stone rolling male and female identities into the part of the doctors' receptionist Fifi. You'll have to see the shadow play of duplicated gestures and expressions to fully appreciate the double laughs in this example from an exchange, between Bebe1 and Bill 1:
Bebe 1: Doctor, can you suggest anything for me?
Bill 1: Maybe, Bebe -- a double dose of B1 and B2 taken twice every couple of days for two weeks. As a one-time treatment. Are you covered?
Bebe 1: They pay half. Would you send me a bill, Bill?
Bill 1: In duplicate.
No Ives evening would be complete without some anthropomorphic touches. These work better in some places than others. The Victorian couch with pink ping-pong ball sized buttons would be funnier if not turned into a repeat sight gag that makes it more vulgar than witty. The objectification is given an even lengthier (and better) treatment in Soap Opera which, to the accompaniment of the theme music of The Young and The Restless, plays out the saga of a washing machine repairman (Danton Stone), the "Maypole" washing machine (Nancy Opel) who is more perfect than any real woman could ever be.
Things wind up with the shortest and title piece The Lives Of the Saints, or Polish Joke. Nancy Opel and Anne O'Sullivan as the saintly Edna and Flo have their Polish accents down to exaggerated perfection -- thick and heavy as a plate of overcooked kreplach and kielbasa. They are preparing for a post-funeral repast which may be surprising conclusion for a comic evening -- but then how can you look at life without also making some concession to where it leads. Stephen DeRosa and Danton Stone as the sound technicians who orchestrate their preparations for the receptions turn it all into an old-fashioned radio show.
When I interviewed John Rando less than two weeks ago the plan was for an evening of six plays. Rando rearranged the order of the plays during a tryout of this assemblage in Philadelphia, dropping some, adding two new ones -- seeking the connective thread to tie all into a unified whole. Apparently, what worked in rehearsals ran into a snag when the production moved from the Lavan Arts Center to the BTF's Main Stage. One of the two plays added since Philadelphia, Pilgrim's Progress, proved to be a drain on the other plays. After one preview performance, it was dropped and the sextet is now an intermissionless quintet with several funny interludes in between playlets. As everything's in 2s in Enigma Variations, we now have the symmetry of 5 plays, 5 actors!
The omnipresent director and playwright notwithstanding, it is the merry group of pranksters who give the plays their snap, sizzle and pop. In less skillful hands this material could be too much like a series of live Saturday Night Live routines. Not to be overlooked in giving credit where credit is due is the technical team. Russell Metheny's colorful and efficient art deco set and often hilarious props give visual unity to the production. Jonathan C. Bixby's and Gregory A. Gale's costumes are delightfully daffy. Robert Wierzel and Jim van Bergen contribute their usual good work in the lighting and sound department.
Lives of the Saints is not quite the thought-free diversion it aims to be. Underneath all the fun and games there are some serious questions about aspirations, relationships, life and death for the saintly and not so saintly muddling their way out of the twentieth century and into the Millennium. That's what good comedy is all about!
Our review of the last David Ives play--Mere Mortals
Our interviews with one of the "saints", Stephen DeRosa and director John Rando
Director Rando's last BTF comic romp-- An Empty Plate at the Café du Grand Boeuf