Spotlighters' 'Tenor' proves a clever farce, with faults

October 23, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

A good farce is like an intricate music box -- the type with lots of movable parts. And, Ken Ludwig's "Lend Me a Tenor" is more like a music box than most since it's about opera. To stretch this metaphor a bit further, at the Spotlighters the music box takes on the added detail of being see-through. That's because the theater's arena staging makes all of the workings visible at all times.

Tricky as this may be -- and in this case both the performances and Miriam Bazensky's direction are uneven -- there's also something delightfully fitting about mounting a farce in the round. After all, running in circles is a basic characteristic of most farces.

Regrettably, this configuration also presents problems. "Lend Me Tenor" is set in Cleveland in 1934 in the hotel suite of a world-class operatic tenor named Tito Merelli, who has been hired to star in a local production of Verdi's "Otello." The suite has two rooms and four doors (doors are another key element in farces). Set designer Jim Slivka has rather ingeniously fit all of the doors into the Spotlighters' small space. But to avoid obstructing the audiences' view, he has created an invisible wall, suggested by a line on a floor, and intended to separate the sitting room from the bedroom; the result is ultimately more confusing than amusing.

Much of the play's humor derives from a case of mistaken identity. When Tito -- who fancies wine and women as much as song -- becomes indisposed, the Cleveland opera company's lowly factotum dons an Otello costume and steps into the role. By act two, Tito has recovered and two Otellos are running -- yes, in circles -- around the hotel suite. That's when we see the most obvious shortcoming of this set-without-walls. At one point, both Otellos are supposed to inadvertently appear as mirror images on opposite sides of the bedroom wall; without the wall, they seem to be performing some sort of bizarre dance.

This might seem like nitpicking, especially in a production that does a number of things right, but anything that mucks up the delicate mechanism of a farce detracts from the performances as well. And, there are some amusingly on-key performances.

The actor portraying Tito must convince us he's not only an opera singer, but a superstar, and Greg Mank achieves the right combination of hauteur and weariness. Linda B. Stein is even funnier as his jealous wife, a role she attacks with life-or-death fervor. Jennifer Brown brings similar determination to her performance as the star-struck daughter of the company's general manager.

However, a sense of conviction is missing from the pivotal portrayal of Max -- the Walter Mitty-like factotum whose fantasies come true when he replaces the star. Rusty Eder makes a believable enough nebbish, but he never fully undergoes the transformation necessary to impersonate a star.

This production marks the local community theater debut of "Lend Me a Tenor," which played an exclusive pre-Broadway run at the Mechanic Theatre in 1989. It's a bold effort on the Spotlighters' part, and though the results are mixed, they do not obscure the serious themes underlying this clever farce.

Playwright Ludwig, who happens to be a Washington attorney, questions the nature of celebrity and the distinction between art and fame, as well as the thin line separating appearance from reality. With the latter in mind, it seems especially misguided that a regional San Francisco production was canceled this season when some of the acting company objected to the use of blackface for Otello. (One can only imagine what would they have thought of the Spotlighters costuming the Otellos in wigs that look like rejects from "The Last of the Mohicans.")

'Lend Me a Tenor'

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Through Nov. 1.

Where: Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St.

Tickets: $8 and $9.

Call: (410) 752-1225.

... **

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