Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009

Carte Blanche's DON'T DRESS FOR DINNER

By Russ Bickerstaff
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In a September that saw the opening of some really good comedies in Milwaukee, Carte Blanche Studios’ Don’t Dress For Dinner registers as the most satisfying so far. Alchemist Theatre’s Invader? I Hardly Know Her! was immensely funny, but there were brief moments where it dragged and the cast was a bit uneven. The Milwaukee Rep’s Government Inspector  had some great production values and a really good script, but the playwrihgt’s sense of humor wasn’t perfectly in synch with that of the cast.

Marc Camoletti’s Don’t Dress For Dinner has been very successful in various productions over the years. The classic farce opens on a very cozy stage centered on asmall living room in a French farmhouse two hours away from Paris. The set design makes pretty good use of the limited space available in the studio theatre. As the play opens, Bernard (Clayton Hamburg) is desperately trying to get his wife Jacqueline (Shannon Nettesheim) out of the house to visit her sick mother. He’s anxious because he’s invited his mistress Suzanne (Margaret Muza) over for a romantic evening catered by a professional chef named Suzette (Amber Smith.) As an alibi, he has also invited his best friend Robert (Jordan Gwiazdowski)  over as well. What Bernard doesn’t know is that Robert is, in fact, having an affair with his wife, who elects to stay behind when she finds out he’s coming over. Things get a little complicated from there.

This is a very, very fast-paced comedy. The ensemble keeps up the pace remarkably well, dropping only a few of the subtler bits of comedy in the rush of events. It may not be perfect, but Director Jimmy Dragolovich has done a brilliant job of keeping the pacing going fast enough that a few weakly-performed jokes are hardly noticed. There are some really, really brilliant performances in here. The most remarkable thing about the production as a whole is the overall quality of the physical comedy, which is some of the most dynamic I’ve ever seen onstage, and in a studio theatre space, no less . . . Sitting in the front row, it all felt vividly real AND comic . . . a bit like watching a mid-century Warner Brothers cartoon play out in real life with actual actors. The physical end of the comedy was overwhelmingly precise.

Clayton Hamburg puts in his usually impressive performance, managing to look both charming AND catastrophically nervous in character throughout the play. Hamburg’s comic timing and physicality didn’t come as much of a surprise here given his previous performances with Carte Blanche. Gwiazdowski’s performance was something of a surprise. Gwiazdowski has a really brilliant handle on comic inflection . . . and he seems to have a brilliant grasp of the convoluted humor of the increasing level of artifice as one lie follows another in the ever enhancing deception of the farce. His attempt to explain it all to Bernard’s wife (and much of the rest of the cast) at the end of the play is probably the single funniest moment in the play. Also making a fresh impression was Amber Smith as the hired cook Suzette. Smith has a vastly endearing beauty onstage that pairs well with a comically authentic French accent. Smith’s performance here firmly establishes her as the next in a long line of attractive, brilliantly comedic actresses to make it to some of the city’s smaller stages. Making only the briefest appearance I Costume designer/co-set designer Mike Keiley as Suzette’s brutally jealous boyfriend George. Keiley’s over the top performance is a nice touch to a thoroughly satisfying comedy.

Carte Blanche’s Don’t Dress For Dinner runs through October 4th

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