"Frills, Thrills, and Overkill"
Review of three plays by the Repertory Actors Workshop


Oh, what litle fools we are! Say that with a London accent and you've captured the spirit of the Repertory Actors Workshop's current production - that is, the first hour of their show.

ReAct's three-in-one evening presentation of "The Importance of Being Earnest" (Oscar Wilde, 1895), "The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year" (John Guare, 1967), and "The Bald Soprano" (Eugene Ionesco, 1950) starts out as a joyous mockery of love, lies and language, and would have remained that way had the curtains been pulled down early. As it is, the show suffers from excess, much of it due to the indulgence of Ionesco's work.

ReAct, a multicultural group founded in 1993 by David Hsieh, encourages actors to work on established plays that are too often inaccessible to certain artists due to ethnicity, gender or experience. In realizing this laudable purpose, ReAct faces the artistic challenges of producing older works that have been mainstreamed. Certainly, familiar plays have the advantage of attracting broader audiences, but often their effect and meaning may be largely compromised by the inevitablilies of time.

To reinject vigor into the familiar is a tall order. This is sorely obvious when watching a play such as "The Bald Soprano," which decades ago, commanded notoriety and influence as the head of France's avant-garde theater of the absurd. Since the '50s, Ionesco's plays have been performed widely and have helped shape the surrealist sensibilities of many other artists, such as Edward Albee. But in gaining wider exposure, what was revolutionary theater in the past may have become old hash for contemporary audiences.


Luckily, ReAct's most successful production is also the evening's starter, "The Importance of Being Earnest," directed by Hsieh. The Victorian humor of Oscar Wilde, who had the with of churning substance out of frill, is deliciously rendered by two stars, Caroline Leigh Blakeslee and T.J. Langley. Blakeslee and Langley fill the more flamboyant roles in a party of four.

Love is both superficial and profound for Gwendolen (Blakeslee), who is determined to marry a man for his suggestive name, Ernest. Blakelee's deft shift from mannequin-like composure to high-strung vanity make her the perfect Gwendolen that Wilde imagined young women in society to be.

Langley's jaded manner aptly conveys the character of Algernon or "Algy," the overgrown spoiled brat devoted to a life uninterrupted leisure. When he is not occupied in overeating and weekending, he is playing tricks on his friend, Jack, alias "Ernest," Gwendolen's suitor. As incorrigible as Algy may be, he is also the wittiest, albeit derisive, imparting truth in his biting comments. "Women call each other sister only after they've called each other many other things," he states, observing the jealousies of nubile women. This is definitely not p.c. dialogue, and is largely due to the fact that Wilde enjoyed exaggerating people's vices.

John Bianchi, who previously appeared in ReAct's production of "The Dining Room," and Emily Jo Testa play the other two major roles in the play: Jack/Ernest and Cecily, a younger version of Gwendolen. Together with Langley and Blakeslee, they comprise a giddy party that spins around the talk of love.

As superficial as Gwendolen and Cecily are, the male characters are just as foolish. Wilde's comedy arises from the merging of truth and deception. None of the characters are earnest, but all are trying darn hard to look it.

ReAct's production is a high celebration of the play's 100-year anniversary. It's definitely worth going to see this part of the program.


"The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year" by John Guare (1967), who is better known for his play. "Six Degrees of Separation," is the second performance of the evening. Under the direction of Kathy Hsieh, Stephanie Santos and Gordon Hendrickson play an unlikely couple who meet in a park. Continuing the theme of foolish passion, the two rush into a relationship based on talk of an imagined future and ignorance of present realities.

Hendrickson is quite the deviant, killing any romantic moment with a reference to a farcical tragedy: "On the night of my sister's debutante ball, her arm got bitten off by a polar bear." Santos suspects and hesitates - for a moment - before devoting herself to her weird lover. "What if he's a mugger," she wonders. "Oh, I don't care, I love him, even if he is one."

The third presentation, Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano," directed by Robert Sindelar would've fared much better had it been performed separately on its own, or cut after the second scene.

Subtlety was not one of Ionesco's qualities. "The Bald Soprano" is the darkest of the three plays. Trivialities of love and middle-class life are not so much derided as they are hurled into the fire. In the opening scene, a couple is seated at opposite ends of the stage "conversing." The wife (played by Deniece Bleha) prattles on and on about the day's specials at the grocery while the husband (Mark Woodford) responds with short cluckings of the tongue. Later, their friends (played by David Nochimson and Gina Turner) come by dor a dinner party, adding nothing but more voices to the forettable chatter. While "Earnest" and "Afternoon" played up on fools falling in love, "The Bald Soprano" focuses ob parched couples who've forgotten the meaning of desire.

On its own, "The Bald Soprano" is a trying play. As the third part of a program, it is almost unbearable. The fact that its main characters have no passion is played out repeatedly for the nth time. After a while, any provoking thought degenerates into tedium, producing sighs (and snores) in the audience.

In pointing out that language is useless, some of Ionesco's dialogues are literally babble. Such methods are interesting for a few seconds. Afterwards, it becomes a command for the audience to stop listening. Fine with me. It's past 10 o'clock and I want to go home.

Love is foolish, manners are deceptive and language is nothing but babble. Yeah, yeah, tell me something new.


November 15 - December 5, 1995


© 1995 The International Examiner. Reprinted with permission by ReAct.

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