Because our page count is tight, I often have to cram two reviews into the space of one. Usually, that's not a problem, but this week, we have very strange bedfellows snuggled up together: a family-friendly romp at the Gaslight Theatre, and a strictly adult drama at Live Theatre Workshop.
I'll start with the family fare, and then you children can go do something safe, like play in the street, while I have a few words with the grown-ups about the other show.
Gaslight's latest musical spoof is Harlie's Angels, a takeoff on that cheesy 1970s TV series about a trio of foxy detectives who worked for a never-seen boss named Charlie. Gaslight writer-director Peter Van Slyke is taking a bit of a risk here, because Charlie's Angels was already the victim of a couple of big-budget Hollywood send-ups. How can this stage effort compete? But the Gaslight treatment operates, as usual, on an entirely different plane of reality; it's as much a parody of the disco movement as a TV satire, with the sorts of villains you'd find in Rocky and Bullwinkle.
The bad guys are more interesting than the heroines here. It's the 1970s, and the Slobovians have resolved to take over the world—the world of disco, that is—but their efforts have been hampered by the defection of their one international disco superstar, Flavio Suave (Todd Thompson in an unreliable blow-dried wig). The head of the Slobovian Secret Service (David Orley, playing a cross between Mr. Big and Dr. Evil) and intelligence-committee member Comrade Ninetchka (Nancy LaViola) send out a pair of operatives, the Piroshki brothers (Mike Yarema and Charlie Hall), to take Flavio out of circulation and establish themselves as disco stars. The brothers are unpromising performers—they can't get a position higher on the charts than David Hasselhoff—until they are placed in a machine that rearranges their molecular structure to maximize getting their groove on. They emerge as a pair of "wild and crazy guys" inspired by old Saturday Night Live sketches.
The Angels (Sarah Vanek, Deborah Klingenfus and Tarreyn Van Slyke) and their watcher (Joe Cooper) are less compelling as characters; the women aren't much more than quasi-airheads who know martial arts, which actually isn't much different from the TV show. But there is some amusing hair-flipping, some single-finger karate action and an underwater fistfight to keep things funny. Some of the best song-and-dance work comes from secondary figures, particularly Yarema and LaViola.
The show-closer is an olio paying tribute to Hollywood musicals, primarily The Wizard of Oz. Presumably to avoid copyright trouble, the affectionate condensation stops about two-thirds of the way through the story. What a disappointment; I was looking forward to the flying monkeys.
Now, kids, run along to the comic pages in the back of the paper, and be careful not to peek at the smut section along the way. I have to tell everyone else about a very fine and grown-up show presented as part of Live Theatre Workshop's late-night Etcetera series.
Anne Thibault's I Wrote This Play to Make You Love Me is about a traveling actress named Lysette and her adventures in promiscuity. But this is not just another play about oversexed theater people; it's a sensitive, funny and poignant study of a woman grappling with abandonment issues. If the play has a fault, it's that the audience can figure out Lysette's problem much, much sooner than Lysette does, but this is not because she's superficial; she's just in too deep to find a useful vantage point.
"This is the 33rd bed I've slept in this year," Lysette declares, "though work doesn't account for all of them." Lysette is a bit heftier than casting directors and singles-bar horndogs generally prefer, yet she has managed to land a series of short-term lovers and the lead role in Ibsen's A Doll's House—a play in which a woman abandons her family, which is exactly what Lysette's mother did decades before.
This leads Lysette to contemplate the identities she has chosen for herself in real life, not just in the theater, and her reliance on serial fake intimacy. This is not a dirty show—there's no simulated sex, and very little raw dialogue—but it is distinctly adult in its frank consideration of the tensions between freedom and commitment.
As Lysette, Amanda Gremel securely holds the stage for an hour and a half, presenting to us a determined survivor who is all too aware of her flaws. Gremel can be girlish, authoritative, hesitant, wistful—whatever the scene requires—without slackening a consistent, tight thread of character that runs from the play's beginning to end.
Director Christopher Johnson takes all the play's male roles, most of them offstage. The one exception is his appearances as Lysette's brother, the man who loves her most and best; there's real, honest, touching affection between Johnson and Gremel, creating some of the most effective episodes in the story. The rest of the time, Johnson is a sequence of disembodied voices, the parade of other men in Lysette's life, and he manages to produce a new, thoroughly distinct character every couple of minutes.
Despite what the title suggests, I Wrote This Play to Make You Love Me is not an excuse for Thibault to wallow in semi-autobiographical self-pity. It's a sincere self-appraisal, given a spare, honest presentation.