Thursday, January 3, 2013
Theater review: Black and white pops in Pegasus Theatre’s colorful XSR:Die!
It's a nostalgic whodunit with glamorous 1930s style.
RICHARDSON XSR:Die!, presented by Pegasus Theatre at the Eisemann Center through January 20 and at the MCL Grand from January 24-27, is the most recently performed episode in the delightfully entertaining, long running, and very popular Harry Hunsacker whodunit murder mystery series presented in the creative Living Black and White style. The Living Black and White style presents a story with set, costumes, and even makeup in black, white, and various shades of grey. Taking its script from the old B-movies of the late 1930s to early 1940s, the style sets the stage for the talented and creative cast and crew of XSR: Die! to present a suspenseful and delightful show that includes enough plots within plots to keep the attention and engagement of each member of the audience.
About 15 minutes prior to the opening scene, the audience is welcomed, via an overhead announcement, to the fictitious theatre for a performance. After the announcements, a singer in a brilliant blue gown and sparkling gems warms the audience up with songs from the time period. This is also repeated during intermission.
As part of the theme of the show, during intermission, advertisements are also played that would have been heard during the time period presented in this production.
The story takes place in the backstage area of a Broadway theatre during opening night, thus the abbreviated title, XSR:Die! which means to cross to stage right and then ... die! A new play, written by renowned playwright Clayton Ferrell, is in final preparations.
However, just before the show, the demanding director, Douglas Mallory, insists on making last minute changes to a crucial scene, increasing the ire of the actors, the stage manager and the rest of the cast and crew. During rehearsal, a shot rings out and someone dies. Or do they? While all of this is happening, Hunsacker, a would-be actor and detective, accidentally walks into the scene, thinking that he is arriving to an audition, and things become much more complicated, intriguing, and very, very funny.
Having heard about but never before seeing the Living Black and White style, I was curious and looking forward to experiencing this style of theatre for myself. What a fascinating concept, and it works extremely well.
During the curtain speech, one of the producers, Barbara Weinberger, asked how many people in the audience had seen Black and White style plays. Judging by the response from the audience, I was one of the few that had not yet experienced one of these shows.
However, after seeing this performance, I am looking forward to seeing the other Hunsacker shows that are also in this same style.
Michael Serrecchia directed a very talented cast in a production that is both unique and very successful. Having seen Serrecchia's work and direction in prior shows, I will admit that I had expectations of excellence and I was not disappointed. The show is crisp, lively, and alternately funny and suspenseful in all of the right places. The actors use the entire stage. Even when they are in the background, the actors are engaged as their characters, keeping the story solid.
Dave Tenney designed a set that takes the audience to the backstage of a Broadway theatre. The set is aesthetically pleasing and very functional. The design allows for multiple entrances and exits for the actors and is very realistic. In the theme of Living Black and White, everything on the set is black, white and various shades of grey. The set is created in such a way as to feel and look very natural.
Jen Madison and Stephanie Williams deserve special attention for this show, as all of the costumes, makeup, hair, and wigs are also in black, white, and various shades of grey.
Our eyes are attuned to pick up color. In the absence of color, we want to see the color through the differences in the various shades, shapes, and textures. Madison uses various styles that include time period double-breasted suits, sweaters, and dresses.
All the various shades of black, white, and grey create a believable reality.
Sam Nance, as technical director and lightning designer, should also receive special notice for his work with a lighting scheme that also keeps the set and actors in the Living Black and White believable reality. Nothing appears washed out. Also surprising and highly entertaining is the use of lighting effects during an electrocution scene and a floating crystal ball in yet another scene. Laurie Land provides the exquisite design of the only costumes with color in this show. The dresses and jewelry design for The Chanteuse and Lady in Red really stand out and further contrast the use of white, black, and grey used by the other characters.
Sara Shelby Martin, as The Chanteuse, entrances the audience before the show and during the intermission with warm and lively renditions of time period music from the 1930s and 1940s.
Being one of two performers in the show that provides vibrant color in her costume, the blue in her dress and the sparkle of her jewelry, almost make your eyes hurt from the vibrancy of her costume compared to the black, white, and grey worn by the other actors.
Lulu Ward, as Margo Tyler, is a joy to watch as the aging actress that is one of two prima donnas in the play within a play. Ward plays this part for laughter as she portrays many fascinating facets of this character.
As Margo interacts with the other characters onstage, such as her verbal sparring with Devin or her presentation of the spiritual medium, the audience may be reminded of any of the actresses from stage and screen that have gone from being the star and expecting to be treated as the star, to accepting lesser roles in order to stay in the public eye. Her performance reminded me at times of the dramatic life of Joan Collins.
Scott Nixon, as Eric Devin, is wonderful as the other prima donna. Nixon overplays this character beautifully. Eric Devin is the aging actor that is used to over dramatizing each scene for maximum attention.
If the show were set in modern day, I would have suggested that Eric Devin was a graduate of the William Shatner School of Acting, where every scene tends to be over the top. Nixon learned well and played his part perfectly.
Art Kedzierski, as Douglas Mallory, is the director that every cast and crew member dislikes. He is tyrannical, petty, overly demanding, and insensitive. Or is he? Despite being on stage only a short time, Kedzierski makes a definite impact as Mallory through his interaction with the other characters and his overly demanding ways. Mallory is the character that the audience "loves to hate."
Clay Wheeler, as Clayton Farrell, is the playwright for the show that Mallory is directing. He becomes angry with all the many last minute changes Mallory is making to his script. To the audience, Farrell may seem calm, cool and collected. However, of course, there is more than meets the eye. Wheeler presents a character that seems to be one of the few that is stable. As the show develops, Wheeler allows the audience to see more and more of the depth and complicated character that is Clayton Farrell. Wheeler handles all of the transitions of this character with just the right deft touch that is needed to maximize the effect of the revelations.
Blake Hametner, as Eddie Wilson, brings the right amount of youthful enthusiasm to have the audience initially believe that he is merely a backstage gopher. However, Hametner soon shows that there is more to this character than originally thought.
As with the other characters, Wilson soon shows knowledge and skills that would not have been expected for a mere backstage underling.
As Wilson transitions from the backstage gopher to a character more integral to the story, the audience becomes witness to the skills, such as confidence and timing, that Hametner brings to the character. The audience also sees the unexpected medical skills that Wilson demonstrates, which become crucial during scenes in which more deaths occur.
Alexandra Moore, as Jean Hudson, presents a character that has unexpected depth, skills, and roles within roles that are shown as the story develops. Moore shares with the audience a character that at first appears to be an aspiring and vulnerable actress who asks, in one scene, why Margo does not like her. The interaction in this scene between Margo and Jean very clearly define the hopefulness of an aspiring actress and the bitterness of a more mature actress. As the story line develops, the audience is treated to a Hudson that is alluring, cunning, soft hearted, and delightful to watch with each transition.
Charissa Lee, as Rosemary, is the assistant to Margo. Though she is supposed to be mute, Rosemary is very communicative. In one scene she is playing charades with Hunsacker, in an effort to communicate and get her ideas across to him. As a mute, Rosemary is able to hide who she really is. Lee is very endearing as Rosemary and becomes increasingly more intriguing as the story develops and the audience learns of her background.
Ben Schroth plays Gus, the play's stage manager. Gus has a working history with Mallory and Ferrell. He knows how everything operates backstage and in front of house.
Schroth presents a character that is so average and stable and seems to be one of the few characters in the show that is who he or she seems to be. Schroth does an excellent job with developing and presenting a character that seems in control, matter of fact and unflappable throughout much of the story. This makes the unexpected surprises very unexpectedly surprising.
Ben Bryant, as Nigel Grouse, is described by Hunsacker as the best sidekick that money can buy. When he first appears, he initially seems to be more of a male assistant/brief case carrier.
However, as the story develops and he speaks, we see Nigel as a voice of reason and logic, at times providing the stability for the chaotic Hunsacker. Bryant's Grouse plays the perfect straight man to Kleinmann's Hunsacker.
Chad Cline, as Lt. Foster, brings a character that is almost perfectly stereotypical of the time period of the show, which works very well. Cline brings a character that is no nonsense and, at times, tolerant and collaborative with Hunsacker. This interplay really well works for comedic effect and helps to set up some of the very successful conflicts in the show.
Kurt Kleinmann plays Hunsacker. In addition, Kleinman is also the writer and creator of both the Living Black and White and the Hunsacker character. As such, he has an insight into the mind and motivations of the character and uses it to full effect. His understanding and use of the nuances and time period humor is perfect, as is his presentation of a character that is, on many levels, brilliant, bumbling, sensitive and decisive.
As is the intent of Kleinmann, this show very much reminds me of the presentation and acting styles seen in the black and white murder-mystery detective shows such as Charlie Chan, The Thin Man, Hercule Poirot, and The Maltese Falcon.
Each with the right amount of "overacting" for dramatic effect, very distinct and engaging characters, and a story line that includes plots, subplots, twists, and plots within plots to keep the audience engaged, and guessing as to whom the killer might be and what is the motive.
This is a show that left me feeling nostalgic for the older whodunit murder mysteries of yore and wanting to see more of Hunsacker and the cast of characters on stage for this production.
The continued success of Pegasus Theatre series is a testament to the dedication and skills of the entire cast and crew. This is such a unique show I might even go see it twice in case I may have missed something the first time.
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