“Bette and Boo” a Wicked Satire

By Tom Titus

“The Marriage of Bette and Boo” is a family play, but those familiar with the works of playwright Christopher Durang will know what kind of family to expect – a group ranking somewhere between the Borgias and the Mansons.

Family life, with all of its quirkiness, is served up with generous helpings of Durang’s wicked satire in this offbeat comedy now on stage at the Costa Mesa Playhouse. And, this being Durang, there also are a few zingers aimed at the Catholic church, one of his favorite targets (remember “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You”?).

Director Jeff Paul has called on a troupe of largely unfamiliar faces to bring Durang’s vintage play to life in this ensemble epic of episodic ribaldry. No time period is established, nor is one required to convey the writer’s satirical statements on love, alcoholism and mental illness, topics reportedly borrowed from the writer’s own experiences.

The title pair – enacted by Michelle Skinner and Carl Basile – are young lovers united in marriage and then barely enduring the next three decades together as all the societal traps are sprung around them. Their relatives are particularly satirized, resulting in some outlandishly memorable performances.

Skinner is especially delightful as a young lady who produces one healthy son before losing four more babies – whom she names after Winnie the Pooh characters. She’s a bit daffy, but perfectly sane when compared to those around her on both sides of the family.

Basile enacts the bloodless male stereotype who drowns his real feelings in booze. His performance intentionally lacks dimension, but hits the mark repeatedly.

The finest portrayals are delivered by Suzannah Gratz as Bette’s even goofier sister and Mark Wickham as Boo’s drunken, surly father. Gratz is a hoot as a cello player who can’t remember the numbers she’s performing, while Wickham sustains his stony character with a gnarled, alcohol-frozen face.

Boo’s mother, a giddy matronly lady known only as “Soot” (for reasons never revealed), is played in a servile, fluttery style by Dana Cook. Bette’s father, Wayne Mayberry, who speaks only in undecipherable grunts, draws large laughs after his “death” on stage when he continues to perform, shielded in a tablecloth.

Colton Dillon, as the sole survivor of the union, both acts and serves as narrator to establish a bond with the audience. Other contributors arre Mychael McDonough as Bette’s mother, Kay Richey as her perennially pregnant older sister and Phil Brickey as a priest who considers himself a showman who can’t be bothered with the common people, specifically Gratz’s loony-tunes character.

“The Marriage of Bette and Boo” is an oldie in the Durang repertoire, yet so rarely produced it’ll be new to most audiences. Its merry madness continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 3 at the playhouse, 611 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa, with ticket information available at (949) 650-5269.

A Kissable “Kate” at Vanguard

By Tom Titus

Long before Stephen Sondheim was recognized as Broadway’s premier composer/lyricist, a clever fellow named Cole Porter could justifiably lay claim to that honor.

Porter, known as much for his catchy lyrics as well as a smooth musical style (rhyming “find” with “wind,” as in “gone with the,” for instance), had his biggest hit in 1948 with the Tony-winning “Kiss Me, Kate,” which Costa Mesa’s Vanguard University currently is offering in a lustrous revival.

“Kate,” with a still-effective book by Bella and Samuel Spewack, revolves around a Broadway troupe mounting a musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and centers on a once-married, now contentious couple starring in the show under the leading man’s direction. Naturally, affection lurks under all the ill feelings in the case of both parties.

At Vanguard, director Susan K. Berkompas has assembled a strong, energetic cast to back up the leads – both of whom exhibit terrific singing voices. The icing on this tasty cake, however, is some dynamic choreography from the actress playing Bianca, who steals the show repeatedly with her high-kicking dancing style.

Jordan Laemmlen may not be physically prepossessing as director Fred Graham, who doubles as Petruchio, but his rich, full-bodied voice is commanding in itself. He’s as convincing in romantic solos (“Were Thine That Special Face”) as he is in satirical moments (“Where is the Life That Late I Led?”) – which showcases Porter’s fertile imagination.

As the fiery Lili Vanessi, a screen star returning to the theater, Kelsey Coleman brings a haughty narcissistic quality to her character. She also renders as much heart (“So in Love”) as hostility (“I Hate Men”) in her performance and her scenes with Laemmlen crackle with comedic conflict.

As fine as these two are, though, audiences will leave the Lyceum Theater marveling at the superb dancing talent of Bretlyn Schmitt, who both choreographed the show and renders an incendiary performance as Lois/Bianca. The tall, slender Schmitt excels in the role most moviegoers associate with the great Ann Miller as she oozes erotically through numbers like “I’m Always True to You in My Fashion.”

Joshua David Martin is fine as Schmitt’s slippery paramour and co-star Bill Calhoun, whose felonious forgery brings two other guys into the picture. These would be Mark Austin Nunn and Seth Kennard as the unnamed debt collectors who tickle the audience with their treatment of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” earning two encores in the process.

Ian Jenkins scores as the Army general out to separate Lili from her theatrical bondage (in mid-performance). Movie fans will be surprised to learn that it’s he, not Lois, who sings “From This Moment On.”

Schmitt’s choreography keeps the dancers on their toes, literally, in such production numbers as “Too Darn Hot,” which may be somewhat overextended. She sets a torrid pace with her acrobatic style.

Paul Eggington’s rotating setting gives playgoers a front and back view reminiscent of “Noises Off.” Costumes, particularly those in the Shakespearean scenes, are beautifully accomplished by Lia M. Hansen, while musical director Janice Rodgers Wainwright keeps the show nicely upbeat.

“Kiss Me, Kate” is Cole Porter’s magnum opus and it receives a rousing revival from an enthusiastic company at Vanguard University, 55 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa, where it continues weekends through April 26. Call (714) 668-6145 for ticket information.

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