Sunday, Oct. 11, 2009

Tea At Five

Angela Iannone As Katharine Hepburn

By Russ Bickerstaff
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There was a strange kind of energy mixing around downtown last night. People had gone there for a variety of different shows—the touring Broadway production of Spring Awakening, McGivern and Tarjan in Bunk Bed Brothers, Soultime At The Apollo with the Rep Cabaret . . . Miley Cyrus . . . I was there to see Katharine Hepburn.  In Tandem Theatre opens its new season with a production of Matthew Lombardo’s Tea At Five. I went out to see the show last night.


Playwright Matthew Lombardo captures the life of the legendary screen actress in two brief monologues taken from two different points in her life—1938 and 1983. In ’38 she was young and energetic, trying to come to terms with a  career that seemed to be falling apart. By ’83, she’d  become a Hollywood legend. It was a fairly large crowd that had shown-up to the Saturday night show. The layout of In Tandem’s Tenth Street Theatre is kind of a pseudo-thrust stage that favors those in front of the stage. I sat no the side. You’re that much closer to the stage from the side. In Tandem co-founder Chris Flieller introduced the show. The usual bits of opening curtain speech included mention of WE Energies’ Energy For Tomorrow program,

The info table about EFT was an interesting addition to the lobby of the tenth street theatre. The Sunday matinees will also include appearances by Shepherd-Express A&E Editor/film critic Dave Luhrssen. He will be speaking in the lobby before the show. Personally, I probably could’ve used the insight. Hepburn’s career spanned some really great eras in film, but I seemed to have managed to miss nearly every film the legendary actress has ever been in. My first exposure to her as a kid was comedian Martin Short’s impression of her on television in the 1980’s—probably not all that uncommon for my generation. Having done research on the actress before the show, I was impressed, but probably enjoying the play in a completely different way than the rest of the people in the audience.

The show stars Angela Iannone in the role of Hepburn. One of the first shows I’d ever seen in Milwaukee featured Angel Iannone playing legendary stage actress Sara Bernhardt (a production of Memoir at the Off-Broadway Theatre.) I’ve seen Iannone in countless performances since. It was kind of a shock seeing her in a very similar role here. The play opens and it’s 1938. It may be difficult to reconcile the face of Iannone’s with that of one of Hepburn’s, but Iannone has such a youthful radiance about her in that first act that the lack of resemblance doesn’t seem as much of a problem. The play debuted with Kate Mulgrew in the role—an actress who bears a striking resemblance to the late Hollywood legend. I get the feeling that kind of resemblance would’ve been kind of a distraction. Even with very little other prior knowledge about Hepburn, I felt drawn to Iannone’s performance. She’s curling up and bounding about the stage quite casually—speaking with great passion about her life, her family . . . spouting those little bits of wisdom and odd aphorisms that seem to pop-up so frequently in various places. The big central conflict here is Hepburn waiting to hear back on whether or not she got the part in Gone Wirth The Wind. It’s kind of an interesting moment . . . hanging out with a big name actress when you know what’s going to happen . . .

And then there’s intermission. Chris Flieller and  Grace DeWolff roll-up and pack away 1938 and set-up 1983, complete with touch tone phone, new curtains and a new rug, among other things. Iannone comes in as an older Katharine Hepburn. In that second act, the play reaches kind of closure. The character’s interesting, but the real fascination here for me is seeing Iannone sink into yet another monologue . . . Iannone is remarkably talented at holding an audience’s attention by directly addressing them in monologue. She’s been given the opportunity to do so countless times over the past several years and she’s never failed to captivate. Iannone’s performance last night earned her a standing ovation. I may not have seen Hepburn in a single film, but this show was still a lot of fun to watch.   

In Tandem’s Tea At Five runs through October 25th.

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