Saturday, May 2, 2009

Betty's Summer Vacation with Windfall Theatre

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The strangest production I’ve seen all season may have been Milwaukee High School of the Arts’ production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin Of Our Teeth back in November. There’s nothing quite like the experience of seeing a larger-than-life face of Mike Jacobs talking about the end of the world from the ceiling of a high school auditorium . . . but Windfall Theatre’s production of Betty’s Summer Vacation comes frighteningly close—and it does so without the use of a pre-recorded local news anchor.

The Christopher Durang comedy makes its Milwaukee debut with the Windfall production. It’s an acclaimed comedy about the demands of the media on society and the increasingly seedy tabloidization of the American culture. The satire gets a bit clumsy and heavy-handed towards the end, but what the script lacks in clever execution of painfully coherent cultural criticism, it more than makes up for in sheer strangeness.

The play starts out calmly enough. Designed by Carl Eiche, the set is limited to black and white, with outlined drawings representing everything from stools to refrigerators to sinks and doors. The seating is arranged in the studio space to surround the action on three sides in something resembling a thrust stage. Melissa Keith and Sonia Rosenthal enter playing Betty and Trudy—two people vacationing in a country cottage. Keith is very sympathetic in the role of a woman who simply wants some peace and quiet. Rosenthal summons overwhelming amounts of cuteness and charm in the opening scene, going on at great length about—everything. Rosenthal plays the overly talkative type really well.

When other characters begin to get introduced—things start getting weird. Kristine Lathrop Horgen plays Mrs. Siezmagraff—the woman who owns the property and turns out to be the Trudy’s mother. Other characters include a pair of guys who are tenants of the property—the shy and quiet Keith (James Boland) and the horny frat guy Buck (Marty McNamee.) 

As we’re introduced to the characters, we’re also introduced to the laugh track—a pre-recorded group of laughs that have been written into the script. It’s a bit disorienting. We begin to get introduced to the darker side of all of the characters and the laugh track responds to it—laughing at inappropriate times. In and of itself, this wouldn’t be strange were it not for the fact that the characters themselves can hear the laughter and comment on it. This has the ingenious little effect of taking an audience out of its comfort zone. The characters don’t know we’re there. The fourth wall is quite firmly in place, but there’s this whole other pre-written audience that starts interacting directly with the characters . . . at first through laughter alone, but later-on in bits of dialogue with the characters. Before long, the voices are talking to each other, complaining when there’s no one onstage or when things fail to be entertaining enough. Some of the strangeness of THOSE moments seem a bit mild in comparison to the rest of the plot, which includes offstage rape, dismemberment and murder. Through it all, there’s this laugh track that’s keeping things a comical mood and plot points that are keeping it darkly comic. And overall, there are some really direct moments of agony going on here that aren’t treated at all like comedy.

It’s a very disorienting experience from beginning to end, but once the playwright starts getting less ambiguous, the plot loses a great deal of its charm. The voices become physically manifest (Ben George, Shannon Nettesheim and Tamara Martinsek,) and end up being physical embodiments of the media’s constant need for awful things to happen. Once Durang gets more explicit with the satire, the eerily disorienting feel of the play vanishes and the story begins its somewhat drawn-out journey to the final curtain.

The physical embodiment for the voices quickly turns the play into a Court TV trial of the two characters involved in a pair of murders. It’s not that difficult to tell what Durang’s saying here. It’s about as subtle as a small bomb—clearly there is something wrong with the way the media stages events, but the script doesn’t do justice to th elegant complexity of the rapidly evolving interaction between media, media consumer and media subject. The references to “current” media events firmly ground the play in a much simpler time—the 1990’s. It’s interesting to be reminded of OJ Simpson, Lorena Bobbit, the Menendez Brothers and so on, but a far more sophisticated satirical look into the nature of modern mass media is out there somewhere. In the last moments of this production, you can practically here it out there—in the calming sound of the ocean.

Even with the crudeness of the last part of the play, this one is far too bizarre for adventurous theatergoers to pass-up. Solid performances by Rosenthal, Lathrop Horgen and Melissa Keith combine with extremely comedy/tragedy juxtapositions to make Betty’s Summer Vacation one of ‘08/’09’s most dynamic productions by far. 

Windfall Theatre’s production of Betty’s Summer Vacation runs through May 16th at Village Church Arts on 130 East Juneau.

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