Thursday, April 18, 2013
Theater review: Always A Bridesmaid follows four life-long friends down the aisle in a raucous romantic comedy
Let's just say they wear more than one wedding dress a piece.
GRAPEVINE Over the past few years, I have been increasingly exposed to the wit of playwrights —Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten — whose works, such as Christmas Belles, The Hallelujah Girls, The Red Velvet Cake Wars, and The Dixie Swim Club, are staples of community theater. As a result of the exposure and my enjoyment of the crisp, intelligent dialogue of their striking, Southern-fried characters, I have even begun to collect their scripts. So when I got the chance to see Always A Bridesmaid, their newest offering, which is currently in its world premiere at Runway Theatre in Grapevine, I jumped at it, much in the same way I suspect Director Kenny Green jumped at the chance to work with Jones, Hope, and Wooten.
For the uninitiated, Jones, Hope, and Wooten have a soft spot for clever comedies with a particular focus on strong southern women of a certain age, and they've had plenty of experience with the genre, each having had a career in film and television (including a stint as a writer for The Golden Girls) prior to their partnership.
No exception to this formula, Always A Bridesmaid explores the relationships between a handful of southern belles who made the promise as youths to always be the bridesmaids in each others' weddings; they just didn't know they'd still be performing the role quite so often, or decades later.
All scenes take place in the bridal parlor of a wedding venue in Virginia called Laurelton Oaks where some of the women have been married before, sometimes multiple times. The set is so exact that it is clear, even upon simply entering the theater that the audience is looking at some sort of formal wedding preparation area. Tastefully yet not overly matching antique furniture and rugs are complemented by traditional artwork including "Lake Como" and one of Degas' dancers. Art arrangement is precise and symmetrical, and even the shopping bags dispersed about the room are grouped in an orderly fashion.
This precision comes as no surprise once we meet Laurelton Oaks's proprietress, Sedalia, a no-nonsense, exacting wedding planner who is so enamored with her establishment's reputation of never having lost a bride that she is not above employing a few, um, extreme tactics in preserving it. Sedalia is played in a snippy, persnickety, self-aggrandizing fashion by Sue Ellen Love, whose raised chin and poised carriage perfectly capture Sedalia's essence. When Sedalia first appears on stage, we're not sure we're going to like her but we come to recognize Love's Sedalia as the fifth friend of the group by the end of the play. Love is a versatile actress in what, at first, seems like a less meaty role, but her versatility is utilized in the end, especially when she is employing those aforementioned extreme tactics.
I won't give it away, but I will say that Love is physically chameleon-like in her various scenes.
Monette, the oft-married owner of a performance hall in Nashville, is first up at the altar. Monette would be an easy character to turn into a caricature, but that doesn't happen here. Dana Harrison plays Monette as slightly wearied, yet ever-hopeful; it is clear that she does not really take marriage lightly and that instead, her long string of men may be more of an attempt to increase her odds of finding “Mr. Right” through sheer numbers. Harrison's Monette has a touch of the showgirl to her, with just the right amount of insecurity mixed in with her typical sass to allow the audience to relate to her. Harrison has a palpable stage presence and a gift for creating dramatic entrances and exits. In fact, a number of the particularly memorable moments of her performance occur during or just after entrances or exits from a scene. The most memorable is when she appears in grandiose French garb, and while the costuming itself has something to do with this, Harrison's expression of self-satisfaction and preening posture are what truly make the moment.
The next opportunity for marriage presents itself to Charlie, a curmudgeonly outdoorswoman who seems to derive great joy from griping about her prospects and, thus, seems to have no particular desire to change her lot in life. Charlie is played by Dena Dunn who is hysterically funny in the role. Whether displaying amplified repulsiveness while sick, complaining about the un-poetic names of potential dates, or grudgingly slouching around in a French maid's costume, Dunn's performance is always accessible and her comedy is perfectly timed. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to get her Charlie out of my mind — so perfect is her performance. In fact, I found myself comparing Dunn's performance to that of Shirley MacLaine as Ouiser Boudreaux in the film version of Steel Magnolias, and thinking that MacLaine could have picked up a few pointers. Dunn's emphatic and grousing delivery of lines and her uninhibited expression of her frustrations endear her to the audience and make it obvious why no one is able to stay permanently upset with Charlie, even Sedalia who has most reason to do so.
Supporting the women in all of their nuptial planning is Libby Ruth, the overly romantic idealist who has been married to the love of her life since her youth. Patsy Hester Daussat clearly has fun with this role, flitting about the stage playfully, the quintessential little girl who grew up, but never quite stopped believing in fairy tales. Daussat's onstage energy is discernible, and she fully commits to Libby Ruth's sense of whimsy, racing and can-canning about the stage, singing off-key at the top of her lungs, and talking to tiny stuffed poodles. Unfortunately, Libby Ruth's character suffers slightly from repetition of the same jokes. While initially amusing, they get a little stale in the end but certainly through no fault of Daussat.
Rounding out the group is Deedra, the calm, grounded judge who braves big-city traffic and thieving transvestites in order to appear at Laurelton Oaks when her friends require it. When Connie Lane first takes the stage as Deedra, she seems a bit nervous but relaxes into her character quickly. Deedra is probably one of the most difficult characters to play and do justice to as she is so understated, and while she is as witty as the rest, she has no truly memorable moments in the script. There are some bits that might be easy to play up and make more memorable but doing so would likely be out of character for Deedra. Lane however does stick strongly in the mind with her quiet grace, natural movements, facial expressions and gorgeous diction, and because of this I find myself wishing there were a little more to Deedra to give Lane a little more chance to flex her acting muscles.
Interspersed between scenes are vignettes of Kari Ames-Bissette, daughter of Libby Ruth, as she gives the toast at her wedding reception. Besides adding some additional humor, she acts as a narrator of sorts, tying the scenes together, and eventually appears in the final scene as the cycle of marriage continues into the next generation. Kari was played by Amber Sebastian, who did a marvelous job. Sebastian displays excellent comic timing and improvisational skills as the bride who is overcome by giddiness —— first of love and then of the champagne —— and despite having the least amount of time on stage, makes a big impression with her wide-eyed innocence and progressively more wobbly demeanor.
Sound effects are minor but perfectly implemented, consisting of some storm effects but mostly of a murmuring crowd that can be heard when the actors open the outer parlor door. Music is unobtrusive and serves merely to fill gaps between the scenes. Similarly, the lighting design is fairly simple, composed of parlor lighting and a spotlight for Kari's interludes. Cues for all sound and light effects are perfectly hit, and the crew seems to work like a well-oiled machine, quietly and completely in the background.
Costume Designer Misty Baptiste must have had a great deal of fun with this production, as the characters must be dressed in not just everyday clothing but also in wedding-appropriate fashion, and occasionally in scraps of material and outlandish costumery. Baptiste clearly has an excellent grasp of the characters themselves and of the movement of material, as the garb she clothes the women in is expressive on its own. In addition, while it is easy for the playwrights and the costume designer to rehash the standard joke about the “bad bridesmaid dress” (and they do go there), they put such a fresh twist on it that the audience is laughing rather than rolling their eyes at the joke.
Besides its freshness, what I find particularly interesting about Always A Bridesmaid is that while the friendships of its characters are still central to its plot, the gaze of the playwrights seems to have widened slightly to focus more intently than usual on relationships outside of the friendship, both those that last for a lifetime and those that come and go. In the end, everyone gets what they want even while, and sometimes because, they change. And just when we think all of the women have settled down (could their days as bridesmaids be over?), the possibility and hope of another union peaks on the horizon. So, in addition to being a rollicking good time, as Libby Ruth would say, “It's just all so romantic!”
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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