Vagabonds introduce expanded theater with 'Loot'

January 13, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Like life and death, comedy and tragedy are inseparably related -- a situation the late British playwright Joe Orton exploited to dramatic and comic effect in "Loot," his 1966 farce about death, detective stories and organized religion.

As the inaugural production in the Vagabonds' renovated theater, "Loot" might seem a rather offbeat choice. In fact, the musical revue, "Cole," a more mainstream selection, was to have re-opened the theater in November, but was postponed due to construction delays.

In several respects, however, "Loot" shows off the new Vags to advantage. For starters, the stage directions require a coffin on stage throughout much of the play. While a coffin would certainly have fit on the Vags' former stage, the coffin -- or at least the actors -- might have been a bit cramped. Now that the back of the building has been extended, the stage is deep enough to comfortably accommodate a larger number of both the living and the dead.

And that brings up another reason "Loot" turns out to be a good inaugural selection: Under Richard Jackson's nimble direction, this dark comedy not only lays 'em out on stage, but comes close to "laying 'em in the aisles" as well.

A farce is one of the most difficult plays to stage, primarily because it takes a great deal of skill to make the complicated plot machinations appear effortless. Not only does Jackson's breezy direction carry this off, but his cast exudes the sense of desperation necessary to get the audience caught up in the action.

That action revolves around the corpse of the recently deceased Mrs. McLeavy, whose nurse has designs on pious Mr. McLeavy, and whose son has designs on his mother's coffin. Specifically, the nurse wants to make Mr. McL. her eighth husband, and the son would like to use the coffin to stash the money he and a friend have just robbed from a bank.

Into this house of mourning comes a suspicious but slow-witted detective who wouldn't recognize evidence if it were right under his nose, as it frequently is in this play.

Sporting a mustache and brandishing a Holmesian pipe, Tony Colavito portrays the fatuously self-important detective with just enough earnestness to reinforce Orton's spoof of authority without appearing ridiculous. Similarly well-modulated performances are delivered by Trisha Blackburn, as the much-widowed nurse, whose malleable morals infect most of the other characters; and particularly by Bob Tull, as thieving young McLeavy, a criminal whose success in his chosen profession is seriously jeopardized by his inability to tell a lie.

Like death, laughter often comes at seemingly inappropriate times. In the most serious tradition of farce, Orton capitalized on that inappropriateness by augmenting it with irreverence and using it as a tool for social commentary.

As raucously entertaining as it is deadly serious, this carefully staged production is indeed a worthy -- yes, even appropriate -- way to unveil the Vagabonds' renovated theater. And "Loot's" appropriateness isn't due solely to the quality of the production. Relying primarily on 20 years of ticket revenues, the Vags managed to raise most of the $253,000 it took to raise the height of the stage, add bathrooms, create a rehearsal hall and provide handicapped accessibility, among other improvements. Like this production, that's "loot" to be proud of.

'LOOT'

Where: Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. through Feb. 6

Tickets: $9 and $10

Call: (410) 563-9135

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