The Mask of Affected Bad Performance
Two Actresses Look Really Good While Deliberately Performing Badly
Deliberately staging bad productions for comic effect can be a lot more difficult to pull of than anything more straightforward. From Charles Morey’s Laughing Stock to Michael Frayn’s Noises Off (by way of the farce’s play within play Nothing On) to David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin Jr’s Farndale series, the challenge of bringing deliberately bad performances to the stage for comic effect can be a real challenge, as deliberately bad performance goes against the instincts of any cast. This past weekend a couple of shows opened with really good examples of what happens when a deliberately bad performance is effectively brought to the stage.
In Wisconsin Hybrid Theatre’s Carmen, Ruth Arnell play Mosey Wells—a charming, attractive actress who seems to want to do a good job, but isn’t terribly good at bringing any of the bit parts to the stage with anything approaching a convincing performance. Arnell is brilliantly comic in the role, giving the character real heart that not only keeps the comedy of a bad actress from ever getting stale, but also manages to add to the appeal of a mismatched cast of vintage radio actors desperately trying to get through a non-musical radio adaptation of Puccini’s classic opera. Arnell cleverly tackles the task of making a bad actress seem appealing by adding in subtle, little details that give one the impression that the character is really putting forth an effort and takes pride in her work, but simply has no clue as to how to bring a decent performance to the stage. It’s a fun performance. Towards the end of the play, though the story is far from over, Wells utters her last line, turns to the audience, and bows a bit nervously before taking her seat. It’s a very charming performance.
And in In Tandem Theatre’s The Apple Tree, Georgina McKee plays the three lead roles in three musical shorts. Her Eve in The Diary of Adam and Eve is pretty charming, but her real accomplishment here lies in finessing the finer points of deliberately bad performance as Ella. The character is a chimney sweep who dreams of being a Hollywood star circa 1966 (the In Tandem production attempts to update this, but the musical style of the Brock and Harnick musical is quite firmly planted in 1966.) The waning years of the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals required a certain grace and poise of its Hollywood stars. In an opening song and dance number, the musical has to establish that, though Ella dreams of being a Hollywood star, she couldn’t possibly ever attain that due to physical limitations. A talented woman with a BFA from Southern Oregon University, McKee clearly does NOT possess the limitations of Ella. McKee must balance the off-key gracelessness of Ella in the opening number with the need for the song to have a kind of charming musicality to it that endears the audience to the character. The character has to appear sweeet but graceless. It’s a fine line and McKee walks it quite well in one of the best musical theatre performances of the season.