Some highs, some lows in Spotlighters' crowded bill

Review: Too much of a less-than-good thing.

Theater

November 01, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre is the busiest community theater in town these days. Every weekend, four different shows are on the boards, and on Fridays and most Saturdays theatergoers can sample three in one night. But for the current profusion of activity proves that quantity and quality are not the same thing.

It may be no coincidence that the shortest offering is the best. At 11 p.m., the late-night double feature begins with The Early Monday Morning Show, a comedy-improv act imported from Michigan by writer-performer Greg Hall. He has trained local actors in the style of comedy perfected by Chicago's Second City, many of whose alums went on to star in Saturday Night Live.

Ian Bonds, Ron Burr, Carlos del Valle, Robert Charles Gompers and Candida Rodriguez have a way to go before approaching those heights (or even the heights reached by their more recent local predecessor, the Flying Tongues). But the new troupe has the eager, open spirit necessary to create spontaneous silliness.

Taking audience suggestions for various stylistic approaches to buying a car, del Valle was equally adept at impersonating the Godfather, or a kung fu expert who chops a sedan into a convertible. All the performers hit their stride in a bit about the world's worst toothpaste.

The Spotlighters' main attraction is Frank Marcus' The Killing of Sister George, a dark comedy from 1965 that age has drained of humor.

Bethany Brown plays June Buckridge, an actress so closely identified with her role on a popular British radio soap opera that everyone calls her by her character's name, Sister George. But while Sister George is a kindly, beloved district nurse, Buckridge is a hard-drinking battle-ax who denigrates her gentle-tempered lesbian lover, Childie (sweetly portrayed by Katherine Jaeger). At one point, sadistic George forces Childie to eat a cigar butt; later she orders her to drink dirty bath water.

George's disposition goes from ugly to monstrous when she learns that her character is being written out of the soap opera. Only the intercession of George's boss, Mercy Croft (played with unctuous guile by Linda Kent), saves Childie from total degradation - although Mercy's concern for Childie is not without self-interest.

Except for the obvious theme of an actress indelibly identified with a character whose personality is the opposite of her own, there's little in the script or in director Miriam Bazensky's workmanlike production to remind us that any of this heavy-handed material, replete with stereotypes, is supposed to be funny.

Comedy usually works best if it's handled with deadly earnestness. However, the only hope for Sister George is probably high camp, and that's a slim hope at best. Four decades ago, Sister George may have been daring; now it's just plain dated.

Still, Sister George isn't the Spotlighters' weakest link. That distinction falls to Charm City Dreams, Greg Hall's original "adult" (read: nudity and sexual situations) serial, with episodes that change every three weeks.

The first episode, whose final performance is tomorrow, introduces audiences to the fictitious Four Post Theater, a place that specializes in such novelties as The Wizard of Oz with a topless Dorothy and a nude Diary of Anne Frank.

The company's vain, promiscuous starlet (Patricia Penn) bares her breasts in the first few minutes. The tech director (Reiner Prochaska) has a simulated masturbation scene. And with the exception of the serial's title, there's no connection to anything Baltimore-ish. In short, this is the kind of material that makes The Killing of Sister George look good.

Show times at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St.: The Killing of Sister George, 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, tonight and Nov. 15, 2 p.m. Nov. 11, through Nov. 24; tickets $12. Double bill of The Early Monday Morning Show and Charm City Dreams, 11 p.m. Fridays and most Saturdays (open-ended run). Tickets $10.

The fourth offering, Page & Stage Players, featuring original works by local writers, is presented at 7 p.m. Sundays (also open-ended). Tickets $10. Call 410-752-1225.

Mr. Rodgers

The year 2002 will mark the centennial of Richard Rodgers' birth. and to honor the event, the American Masters series has produced Richard Rodgers: The Sweetest Sounds, which airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on MPT (Channels 22 and 67).

The magnitude of Rodgers' output is overwhelming - 900 songs written for more than 70 shows, most with lyrics by either Lorenz Hart or Oscar Hammerstein II. But the real revelation comes in candid interviews with Rodgers' two daughters. Anyone who thinks the composer of "My Favorite Things" and "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" led a life of sweetness and light will be surprised to learn that he suffered from depression, drank to excess and had a host of phobias.

However, his contribution to musical theater remains unassailable, and this documentary offers plenty of evidence to prove it. The program includes clips from movie musicals, performances by singers Mary Cleere Haran and Maureen McGovern and jazz pianists Barbara Carroll and Billy Taylor.

The Sweetest Sounds will be followed by a rebroadcast of the 1999 Great Performances documentary, The Rodgers & Hart Story: Thou Swell, Thou Witty, at 11 p.m.

In case you haven't heard, the megahit Broadway musical, The Producers, is now charging $480 a ticket for 50 premium seats at each performance. The show's producers claim this is their way of striking back at ticket scalpers. But we can't help thinking it's also chutzpah of Max Bialystock proportions. After all, it's Bialystock - the character played by Nathan Lane - whose watchword is: "When you got it, flaunt it!"

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