Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Lend Soulstice Theatre a Tenor

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Soulstice Theatre continues its season with a production of the classic Ken Ludwig farce Lend Me A Tenor.  A fast-paced traditional farce complete with the traditional door slamming, mistaken identities and amorousness that usually goes on in such things can be a bit tricky for smaller theatre companies to carry off with any flair.  Soulstice manages a fun production for the penultimate show of its season.

With several possible places to perform in the Marian Center, Soulstice chose to stage the show entirely onstage of a large auditorium set, seats and all fit on the stage of a full-size auditorium. They’ve treated the stage of the auditorium as a studio theatre before. I remember a production of Wit they’d staged there some time ago . . . but Wit was a deeply emotional drama. Tenor is an interesting choice for a space like that . . . faced paced-comedy generally needs some distance between audience and actors for things to go fluidly . . .and I made the mistake of sitting in the front row . . . right next to the bed. It was a bit closer than I’d expected . . .

The farce is set in a hotel suite in Ohio in the mid-1930’s. A local opera company is staging a production of Othello featuring Tito Merelli (Charles Lynch)--a world-famous Italian tenor with a host of marital and personal problems. Characters fall over each other trying to get the man to the stage . . . a process which becomes particularly daunting when he apparently dies of a drug overdose in his hotel bed . . . requiring an aspiring tenor to take the stage in full costume . . .leading to all the usual sorts of problems that go along with a premise like that in a traditional farce.

Luke Cieslewicz plays Max—an aspiring tenor forced to take Merelli’s place when he seems dead . . . Cieslewicz is excellently awkward in the role ,but would need to make more of a dramatic transition from nebbish to stage legend for the overall plot of thee play to resonate as well as it should. Charles Lynch and Lisa Golda (who plays his wife) have affected Italian accents that sound as though they were patterned after Chico Marx, not exactly authentic, but it’s a nice comic reference point for the show . . . Returning to Soulstice for the production are Kelly Simon in the role of Max’s fiancé Maggie and Amber Page as rising, young opera starlet Diana. Page, who previously appeared in Soulstice’s Chicago is excellent as vamp here. Simon, (who most recently appeared in Spirals Die Mommie Die!) continues to explore the more innocent side of her nice-girl range in another sweetly endearing role. Both Simon and Page share comic stage kisses with men in blackface (the opera in question is Othello, remember . . . ) The comedy in seeing an attractive actress’ face smeared in jet black body paint never quite seems to get old . . . sometimes the best comedy lies in the simplest things. . .

Those sitting in the front row of the auditorium get swept up into the midst of the action, which feels a bit too close to be able to see the full effect of what’s going on. It IS a fascinating experience to be nearly onstage with all the anger, frustration and door slamming going on. I got hit by skirts and capes and such, as much of the cast passes in front of the bed at one point or another . . .it’s a novel experience being this close to a high-speed comedy, but most audience members may wish to sit a bit further back . . .

Soulstice Theatre’s Lend Me A Tenor runs through April 25th at the Marian Center for the Nonprofits.

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