Monday, Dec. 15, 2008

Quick, Rambling Impressions of Deborah Staples in The Blonde . .

By Russ Bickerstaff
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While reasonably fun in places, the script of The Blonde, The Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead is pretty far from being any towering work of genius. Australian playwright Robert Hewett tells an interesting story from a series of different perspectives which are delivered in a series of different monologues all from the same actress playing multiple roles. Fine. But only some of the language Hewett uses is particularly engrossing and only one of the characters comes across with anything resembling a terribly captivating personality. What makes the monologue programs of a truly brilliant author like Jeffrey Hatcher (Three Viewings, Murderers) so good is the fact that his characters are fun enough to be around that they would keep an audience interested even if there wasn’t a terribly interesting plot to follow. And so, in absence of much else, The Blonde. . . relies on its plot. It's a plot that focuses quite a bit on conflicting elements between a series of different perspectives on a tragic event and all of the many people involved in its occurrence.This sort of thing was done much better in a much more primal form in Rashomon—a play based on a film by Akira Kurosawa which was based on a short story by Rynosuke Akutagawa that ultimtely goes back to 1922, so what we’re seeing here is hardly new. The parallels between The Blonde . . ., and Rashomon are considerable and really not worth getting into here as they are extremely tedious. Suffice it to say, what with the limitations of the script being what they are, this play really needs an extremely entertaining performance by its actress in order to make much of a lasting impression.

The Milwaukee Rep
is billing The Blonde, The Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead, as its first ever single-actor main stage show. The show in question is in excellent hands with Rep resident actress Deborah Staples. Staples has shown a great deal of talent in her many years with the Rep and would make for a great central focal point for any production. All too often, the talents of individual actors are blurred by the large ensemble pieces the Rep is given to doing. This is perfectly okay and nothing to be ashamed of, as the Rep has the kind of talent that really excels in larger ensemble works. That being said, it’s nice to see ANY of the individual actors being given center stage for the entire duration of a feature-length production.

Staples tackles a number of interesting roles here, including a young boy, a man and a number of women. Some of the monologues work better than others. With casual, thoughtful rational tones, the title redhead (suburban housewife Rhonda Russell) works as sort of a baseline performance. This is a very calm, articulate woman who draws the audience into the story at the beginning of the play and draws us out at the end. Staples is exceedingly competent in the role . . . and it’s fun to see her there in the center of everything at the beginning of the show knowing that we’re going to see a lot more of her onstage than we’re normally allowed. Her performance in the same role at the end of the play is hampered by the script in ways that would be far too invasive to mention here.


By far the most interesting female role Staples plays in the entire production is that of Lynne, the brunette next door who takes an active interest in Rhonda’s life. The script is at its best here, giving Staples a really fun character to work with. She’s clearly presenting herself in a much more altruistic way than a more objective perspective would reveal. Staples’ performance is irresistibly endearing here . . . pleasantly delivering to the stage the kind of highly subjective personal editing of memory that makes us all able to live with ourselves at the end of any day. This one performance single-handedly makes this production the best show the Rep is currently staging and well worth the price of admission. The rest is extra. Too bad the rest of it feels a bit excessive and tiresome.

The production very rarely ventures into abrasively annoying territory and, thankfully, all of those disagreeable moments happen to land on the same monologue: Staples’ performance as the little boy Matthew. Staples has all the right mannerisms. She physically transforms herself into a young boy quite well. The problem is in the dialogue. It’s possible that the monologue was entirely written to have a cloyingly cliché toddler speech impediment. I want to believe that this is the case. I really, really do. It’s difficult to imagine an actress as good as Staples adding the impediment herself. It’s a cheap crutch. I don’t know . . . maybe the director suggested it. In ay case, the role, which isn’t terribly interesting to begin with, is difficult to focus on with such an annoying vocal presentation. (For the record, I don’t necessarily have a problem with adult actors playing children. Colleen Madden did an amazing job of this in her performance in the entirely different monologue show The Syringa Tree with Renaissance Theaterworks some time ago. By far my favorite local adult performance as a child has to be Amy Geyser in the role of a young Lil’ Bit in Kopper Bear’s production of How I learned to Drive years ago. . . a staggeringly interesting character study with a single actress playing a single character at every important age in her life from childhood to adulthood . . . still far and away one of my favorite productions ever.)

On a personal level, it was kind of interesting to see Staples play Rhonda’s husband Graham. The character isn’t that pleasant . . . he’s downright contemptible in many ways. As I recall, his is the big reveal after intermission. After seeing Staples step into and out of mostly similar characters for much of the play, we suddenly see her as a guy—sitting there in a chair in exactly the way a guy would. The really fascinating thing about this for me was seeing the mannerisms she was using to represent a guy onstage. I don’t know if it was all in my head. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision on her part. Maybe she even studied specifically for the effect. In any case, I couldn’t help but notice elements of Staples' husband, fellow actor David Cecsarini in the role. It’s subtle, but if you’re familiar with the darker end of any of the characters Cecsarini has played with Next Act Theatre in the past, it’s unmistakable: conscious of it or not, parts of Staples’ performance as Graham seem to be her impression of the darker end of a David Cecsarini character. Honestly, I don’t think a whole lot of people would have this effect happen for them, (I think it'd probably come as a surpize to both of THEM) but it’s interesting to note. A part of me always wondered what it might be like to see the two actors, both of whom I respect a great deal, appear onstage together. In a vague sense, that almost sort of happens here with Staples’ performance as Graham in The Blonde, The Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead.

The Blonde, The Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead runs through January 4th at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre. If you’re under 40, there are plenty of seats available for $10. If you’re under 40, there are far worse ways to spend $10. It could be pointed out that some far less provocative films are a bit more expensive at the multiplex. Do you really need to see another Jim Carrey move? Really? C’mon. . .

A FAR more concise review of the show runs in The Shepherd-Express this week.

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