Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Theater review: White Liars and Black Comedy at McKinney Performing Arts Center
A duo of plays that deliver mixed results.
Two shows for the price of one is the deal McKinney Repertory Theatre is offering right now! White Liars and Black Comedy (playing at McKinney Performing Arts Center through June 3), both written by Peter Shaffer, famous for Equus and Amadeus, is a pair of thematically similar one-act plays. Both demonstrated the inherent dangers of the classic tangled web created by deception. However, White Liars was far less enjoyable. Black Comedy lived up to its name as the comedy of the two plays.
The court house theater was alive with the music of the 1960s, setting the tone for the two plays, written and set in 1965 and 1967 respectively. A fine selection of music greeted us as we walked in and chose our general admission seats. As White Liars began, the first indication of the setting was the raucous call of seagulls and crashing waves, used later as a reminder. Later, in Black Comedy, a fuse in the apartment was blown and the record player slowed down as it naturally would, showing off the sound design and manipulation talent of Richard Pedretti-Allen.
When doing a double feature, the first instinct is to use as few set pieces as possible. However, McKinney Repertory Theatre showed great ingenuity, opting for a full box set that worked for both productions.
In White Liars the small, seaside shop of Baroness Lemberg is white-walled, with a large window upstage center and stairs stage left leading into the waiting room. During the intermission the whitewalls and window are removed to reveal a peach-colored parlor and a bedroom above the upstage area by a platform. It was a smooth and effective transition that only took the course of a 20-minute intermission to make.
The costumes for both shows were fairly simple, possibly pulled from the actors’ own closets with the exception of the character Tom in White Liars. As an aspiring “pop star” his chosen shirt and jacket were too outlandish to believe any sensible person would actually choose to wear them. A good amount of thought went into creating costumes that reflected the characters. This was most evident in Black Comedy where the conservative and prissy Carol Melkett, dressed in a matching plaid skirt and coat combination, was juxtaposed with the fun and free-spirited Clea who showed up in a bright, multi-colored short dress. The costumer should be commended but was not listed in the program.
Lighting design was the most challenging element of these productions, but Lisa Miller showed great aptitude in making believable effects. White Liars was the simpler of the two shows, which started with a slow fade in to and ended with a slow fade down to a spot on Baroness Lemberg stage right. The rest of White Liars had the standard coverage.
Black Comedy was a unique challenge because the central plot of the play happened during a blackout in an apartment building. When the lights in the apartment were on the stage lights were out and the actors performed in darkness. When the lights in the apartment were off the stage lights were on and the actors had to perform as if stumbling in darkness. However, there were many times when different light levels were necessary to demonstrate the low light conditions of a lighter or a match or flashlight. These instances were well handled with quick light changes as the lights flickered from one state to another for comedic effect.
It’s nice that McKinney Repertory Theatre is offering a double feature for two one-act plays. However, given the length and higher quality of Black Comedy, it could have easily stood alone. The two shows combined for a three-hour theatrical event.
White Liars was an unnecessary, unsubstantial, unsatisfying hour-long tale of deception upon deception upon deception. Long-winded, overwrought monologues dominated the action of the play and left the audience bored. White Liars was far from Peter Shaffer’s best written work and the inclusion of it in the evening was baffling.
The play centered on business partners Tom, the aspiring “pop star,” and Frank, who aspires to be Tom’s manager. Tom insists they consult the clairvoyant Baroness Lemberg, whose family arrived in England from Austria during World War II. Lies were revealed, relationships broken and in the end the audience was left to wonder why we just sat through this uncomfortably long presentation.
McKinney Repertory Theatre was lucky to have access to Yvonne Vautier-DeLay who vocally prepared everybody for the tricky accents necessary for their roles. Emily Reyna-Hunt played with such a heavy Austrian accent it was hard to understand her at times. But it was believable because, before it was revealed where Baroness Lemberg originated, it could be guessed she was from Austria.
However, the real challenge was in the part of Tom, played by Robert Gemaehlich, who purposefully changed English dialects part way through his performance. Gemaehlich smoothly transitioned through the dialects without any hiccups.
After intermission, Black Comedy was ready to go on. Shelton Windham showed
great heart by being the only actor playing substantial roles in both shows. In Black Comedy he played Brindsley Miller, a struggling artist aspiring to sell his work to the millionaire Bamberger and marry his new fiancée, Carol Melkett, after winning her father’s approval. Of course, both scenarios must happen in the same evening just to add to the absurdity of the plot. As Carol, played by Summer Banks, and Brindsley prepare for a stressful evening, the power to Brindsley’s London flat goes out, plunging the characters into darkness but the actors into light. Zany action followed and in the end Brindsley reaped the rewards of his dishonest life.
The physicality of the farce that was Black Comedy was one of the finer directing points. Many laughs were pulled out of the audience due to the wild circumstances the characters found themselves in due to stumbling in the dark. Characters were sitting on each other, addressing the wrong person, mixing drinks, and falling over chairs in their attempts to accomplish their goals.
Most enjoyable of all the characters was Miss Furnival, played by Sue Goodner. Miss Furnival came to Brindsley’s flat after the power outage because of her fear of the dark. A conservative, older woman, Miss Furnival is the daughter of a vicar in the Church of England, who staunchly does not drink. However, her reactions to accidentally being handed an alcoholic beverage were hilarious.
Although the thematic similarities of the two shows were easily recognizable, the inclusion of White Liars brought down the overall satisfaction of the evening. The whole cast of Black Comedy did very well, drew laughs from the audience and ensured their enjoyment of the evening. Fortunately, McKinney Repertory Theatre presented Black Comedy second so the audience could leave on a positive note.
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