Saturday, June 26, 2010

Style and Comedy With Carte Blanche

The Unique Voice of a Studio Production of Out Of Order

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The unique personality of Carte Blanche Studios’ latest farce is apparent from the first moment you walk into the theatre. The general rhythm and language of a traditional farce has been bent and twisted into a strikingly bizarre parallel world. Quite often the focus of this kind of comedy is the comedy itself, but Carte Blanche seems to have taken a different approach to this one that slants things in a decidedly different direction.

 

At the hands of director Jimmy Dragolovich, designers Michael Keiley and  Kate Vanoy and the whole cast, Carte Blanche’s treatment of Ray Cooney’s Out of Order stylishly establishes a distinctly bizarre reality for the stage. Caerte Blanche’s Out Of Order lives in a space vaguely visually reminiscent of Tim Burton with characters who carry themselves like they’re on an episode of Benny Hill—it’s a world where a light thwack on the back is enough to knock someone out and everyone is exceedingly easy to concuss. There’s a closet for the pursued and incapacitated and the balcony is used as an exit every bit as much as the front door. Sexual tensions rest quite powerfully beneath the veneer of formal social life. It’s a bedroom farce that also has very strong shades of workplace comedy that just happens to be set in a hotel room with a view of Big Ben.

 

Cooney’s comedy isn’t his best work. The comedy is weak and formulaic. Punchlines are slow and staccato, which doesn’t work terribly well for farce, which tends to work better in a gradually increasing rhythm of gradually increasing complexity that becomes overwhelmingly funny towards the end. Cooney’s Out Of Order manages an awkward approximation with a decidedly slow metabolism. It is to the credit of Dragolovich and everyone at Carte Blanche that the production still manages to be satisfying anyway . . .

 

Michael Keiley’s set and costume design plays out entirely in black and white patterns. The action cascades across a black and white checkerboard floor. The black and white details of the hotel room extend into clever little details including simple, framed Rorschach-esque abstract paintings hanging in the background. Splashes of color add accent to the set. There’s a purple dress, a tradition “waiter,” (bellhop’s) out fit and a body is dressed in a plaid suit in direct apparent defiance of a 1980’s Steve Martin movie title. Keiley and company manage a really striking visual effect on a budget in a very, very small space. Open the curtains and there’s the striking image of London lit in the background. Open the door and there’s a view of the hall and the door of the next room—impressive depth for an exceedingly thin stage.  

 

For the second time in recent memory, Clayton Hamburg plays the male lead in a Carte Blanche bedroom farce. He’s playing a politician looking to have an extramarital affair with a typist played by Liz Whitford. Hamburg is great for a farce . . . he’s able to draw into a powerful reserve of nervous anger that he’s able to maintain throughout the entire production without suffering from a lack of articulation. That nervous flopsweat his face is glistening with for much of the play is no accident.

 

It’d be all too easy to play the beautiful object of the politician’s lust without much personality, but Whitford’s comportment here subtly adds quite a bit to the workplace comedy aspect of the show. For much of the early portion of the show, she’s dressed only lingerie—black stockings, garters, bra and panties . . . the usual sort of thing that one might expect out of a bedroom farce, but when a body is found slumped over the hotel room window, an associate of the politician’s is brought in to try to help deal with the logistic complexities of getting rid of a corpse and the show shifts gears into shades of workplace comedy. Whitford shifts to a very formal workplace demeanor at this stage, which comes across as a cleverly funny contrast to her attire. A good portion of Whitford’s comedic contribution here is simply being formal and businesslike in black lingerie for the early part of the play. She could’ve tried to do more than that for the sake of a laugh, but she didn’t have to. It’s a very savvy performance.

 

Paul Terkel plays associate George Pigden, who has been called in to try to help solve matters, only to hopelessly complicate them. He competently plays a stiff shirt that has to loosen-up as he gets drawn-into the complexity of things. Terkel is pretty good with the pacing here, showing real promise for physically demanding comedy in a role that requires him to dance around nervously with a lifeless body at one point.

 

The workplace comedy extends to the  staff of the hotel itself. Jordan Gwiazdowski finds an interesting voice for his particular take on a vintage hotel bellhop. The physicality of a spry, old man who has likely seen a great deal of strange goings on in a lifetime of working at the hotel.  Gwiazdowski’s bellhop takes to the complexity of things with great enthusiasm. Gwiazdowski has a talent for a range of physical comedy that is slowly being tapped by a series of comedies with Carte Blanche. The advanced age of his character here gives him something new to work with that keeps his comedic talent novel and interesting for another trip to the theatre.

 

Designer Michael Keiley first made an impression with Carte Blanche onstage. Here Keiley makes a fun turn as the hotel’s overly dramatic manager. With everyone else other than Hamburg playing down the intensity of things for the sake of subtle comic mood, Keiley has an opportunity to claim more than his fair share of dramatic flare. Keiley plays it way over the top here as a critically conservative personality. There’s a far from conservative nature lurking underneath the conservatism that gets revealed in a typically over-the-top comic moment. With Keiley as costumer as well as actor, it’s a bit strange to picture Keiley trying to choose exactly what he’d be wearing underneath the formal, conservative manager’s outfit . . . I don’t doubt he put a lot of thought into it . . . 

Also making a notable appearance in the cast is Adam Zastrow as a jealous boyfriend who shows up. While Zastrow is a very tall man, he’s not exactly intimidating. Traditionally a jealous boyfriend in a farce like this would be huge and bulky—a massive guy you wouldn’t want to mess with. Zastrow’s tall and thin, though. They’ve gone in a direction with the character that works pretty well here . . . The character appears onstage as a radical punk complete with extensive tattoos and the traditional early ‘80’s punk look. There’s a crazy energy about Zastrow that could’ve been played-up just a bit more. If there’s anything more intimidating than a big, overwhelmingly powerful guy, it’s someone who is manic, crazy and evidently prone to violence. If Zastrow had been given just a little bit more room to be manic and unpredictable in and around the action of the script, his end of the comedy might’ve had a bit more impact.

 

Carte Blanche’s production of Out Of Order  runs through Sunday, June 27th at Carte Blanche’s space on the south side. It’s a fun show. There are two performances left as of this posting.

 

 

 

 

This was my fifth shows in nine days. Scheduling got a bit haywire and I wasn't able to see this show until last night. Regrettably, I’m entirely missing Bite Theatre’s second show, which sounds really, really good. From here, I roll into what is likely to be a dozen days without a trip to any theatre . . . it’ll be strange to be absent from a theatre seat for so long . . .   

 

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