Christopher Durang is a master of dark comedy. In established works such as Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, Beyond Therapy, and Baby with the Bathwater, Durang mixes humor with pathos while making audiences intrigued and amused at the same time. Betty’s Summer Vacation is no different. Durang’s tale of a trip gone bad is a life lesson straddling the fine line between the humorous and the macabre. And no one knows this fine line better than the Mad Cat Theatre Company.
Mad Cat is the brainchild of a prolific local actor by the name of Paul Tei. In 2000, Mad Cat was created to produce original works dedicated to entice, enlighten, and encourage younger audiences in the type of theatre that speaks to them. Tei corralled a group of actors and designers and formed a collective to present their style and flair to the masses. While most of the material is written by company members, Betty’s Summer Vacation is a departure of sorts as the first non-original piece in more than a year.
Ivonne Azurdia is Mad Cat’s playwright-in-residence who won a Carbonell Award for best new work last year for Tin Box Boomerang (which will receive a second life at the Hollywood Playhouse this fall). This time, Azurdia takes the helm as lead actor as she and her colleagues ride through Durang’s usual chaos and disorder in true cheeky style.
Betty (Azurdia) and her friend Trudy (Aubrey Shavonn) arrive at a summer timeshare by the beach, excited by their time away, not knowing the pleasures that await them. Their glee turns into something else when they encounter the other guests: jumpsuit-wearing Keith (Jason Allen), carrying hat boxes; Buck (Gregg Weiner), an oversexed rowdy who will hit on anything that moves; and Mr. Vanislaw (George Schiavone), a vagrant who loves to expose himself. The owner of the cottage is Mrs. Siezmagraff (Lorena Diaz), who has a resemblance to Auntie Mame and would make Mama Rose blush. Mrs. Siezmagraff is revealed to be Trudy’s mother.
As time passes, we learn of Trudy and her mother’s estranged relationship due to Trudy’s rape by her father. Trudy’s affection toward Keith, due to the fact that they were both abused children, has no effect on Keith as he is more drawn to Mr. Vanislaw. Mr. Vanislaw and Mrs. Siezmagraff try connecting to one another while Buck tries to connect with all of the females in the house. In addition, a Greek chorus (Luis Sosa, Samara Siskind, and Erik Fabregat) is calling from the ceiling, laughing and applauding every move the houseguests make. Throw in a rape, a trial and two murders, and we have a piece of theatre that is not only enthralling but ridiculously entertaining.
Betty’s Summer Vacation is Christopher Durang at his best (and at his worst). Although it premiered in 1999, the themes within the play are as relevant today as they were five years ago. This is a satire raging with society's fascination with people getting into real predicaments and being entertained by their plights. The Greek trio represents our gluttony for things horrible and uncertain. Durang pokes fun at people’s attraction to killings and trials, showing our darker side.
Continuing the momentum she showed in the Trap Door production of Boston Marriage, Ivonne Azurdia tones down her silliness to make Betty the voice of reason through all the distortion. But when things really go awry, Azurdia goes in to Dick Van Dyke mode showing her physical comedy prowess. When Betty screams at something horrid, Azurdia exudes the innocence in Betty’s eyes with no force at all. Azurdia’s stage presence is defining, making Betty the heroine of the piece.
The tragic hero would have to be Betty’s loquacious friend, Trudy. Aubrey Shavonn is a marvel at making Trudy a ditzy chatterbox in the beginning, and later putting her acting skills to the test as she turns Trudy into something more. When Trudy is attacked, Shavonn switches into the deeper ranges between a girl who lost her innocence ... and a woman scorned (and we know what is said about a woman scorned).
As for male comic relief, Jason Allen is caustic as Keith, creating a character with deep scars and a dubious fascination with vagrants and sharp objects. Allen slowly paces himself as a man deeply inhibited until he finally snaps at the end. George Schiavone is slightly amusing as the drifter, Mr. Vanislaw, while Gregg Weiner struts his stuff as Buck, the horn dog of a typical male. The troika of Sosa, Siskind, and Fabregat as the three voices in the ceiling provides comical fodder, working like a well-oiled machine.
But the night belongs to the ladies, as Lorena Diaz proves bombastic is more than just an adjective, it’s a work of art! Diaz is vibrant as the larger-than-life Mrs. Siezmagraff. Her comedic talents equal Azurdia’s as she swaggers in as the master of her domain. When Trudy is on trial, Diaz controls the room as Mrs. Siezmagraff saves her daughter, shortening the rift between them a notch.
Paul Tei directs his ensemble like a boxing match. Bobbing and weaving through Durang’s dialogue, the cast moves along like Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali rope-a-doping each other, never tiring the audience (even though the play is more than two hours long). Carolina Pagani’s set, a quaint pattern of yellow walls with furniture, looks comfortable on the surface. Karelle Levy’s costumes work wonders, giving each character a defining look. Natan Samuels’ sound has the right panache for each mood, from the tranquil ‘50s and dark, troublesome organ music to the wacky "People’s Court" theme. But nothing tops it off like the lighting by Travis Neff. The colors are loud and bright, blending everything together.
Christopher Durang’s take on tabloid fodder and our attraction to it resonates with today’s boom of reality television and court trials. If Mad Cat’s modus operandi is to produce material that pushes the envelope while being entertaining, Betty’s Summer Vacation is a perfect fit for Paul Tei and his crew. Four years running, Mad Cat still proves to be a top dog in cutting edge theatre. Betty’s Summer Vacation will play at the until August 14th at 3000 Biscayne Boulevard. For more information, please call (305) 576-6377.
MAD CAT THEATRE COMPANY - Betty’s Summer Vacation
Cast: Ivonne Azurdia, Aubrey Shavonn, Jason Allen, Lorena Diaz
Set Design: Carolina Pagani
Directed by Paul Tei
-- Kevin Johnson