Also see Bob's review of Dracula
But Playhouse Creatures turns out to be one of those modern comedies that's only supposed to be funny far, far in the back of our heads. And, were it not for the mesmerizing performances on stage, it would ultimately be a very joyless affair - more like a Twilight Zone nightmare when it comes right down to it. Don't get me wrong, it's a splendid lineup of star-turns and silliness, held together by Deanna Jent's iconic direction. In terms of the overall production, in fact, it's head-and-shoulders above anything else that passes for entertainment in this town this month.
And I don't want to spoil the "paradigm shift" (we used to call them "surprise endings," before M. Night Shyamalan came along), but the dark undertone is all laid-out quite clearly from the start: Nancy Lewis opens the show, in one of her most perfectly realized characterizations (since moving to St. Louis from the west coast several years ago), playing a toothless old crone who grew up in this particular theater. As if beginning a ghost story, she tells how her father managed a bunch of dancing bears, curiosities in London, before the bear-pit became a playhouse. Now it's 1670 and actresses are the new curiosities: finally allowed on stage, beginning with Mrs. Betterton, played by the luminous, lightening-touched Michelle Hand.
But as quick as you can say 'out, out, damned spot,' things have gone bad, and these women in their poodle wigs are forced to act out the Restoration equivalent of girl-on-girl soft pornography. It's a nightly warm-up for the private entertainment of the House of Lords and other stage-door Johnnies, extending the slide into depravity. But these women are somewhat ahead of their time, and they respond to these indignities by demanding a share of the theater profits. This, of course, ruins the fantasy for the men, and leads to some ghastly consequences.
Magan Wiles is very entertaining as Nell Gwyn, the most famous of these early actresses, funny and dim and foul-mouthed. Julie Layton is equally fine as the egomaniacal actress who goes through a horrific break-up with the Earl of Oxford. And Brooke Edwards is terrific as the dim and heartbreaking missionary-turned-soubrette, whose good luck never fails to fail her.
But it was the audience that seemed the most British of all, barely cracking a smile, in spite of the way that comedy is so brazenly dangled in our faces. I think Playhouse Creatures works beautifully, but all that humor seems coldly ironic in light of the struggles at hand. In this story, any woman who stepped out of line 337 years ago was apt to run afoul of domineering men, unless she was smart enough to stay very, very low, right from the start.
And, not to brag, but I actually went back and saw this show a second time. Opening night I was exhausted and became the typical 'impatient middle-aged man,' especially in the second act, as Ms. De Angelis' play careened from black-out to black-out. But the Orange Girls are one smart bunch of tomatoes, so I gave them a second chance. It turns out it was all me, when it came to my exasperation, and I enjoyed the spontaneity of Mrs. Lewis and the others twice as much Saturday night.
But this raises an important question: are most of our meanest critics merely sleep-deprived?
Playhouse Creatures continues through October 28th, 2007 at the Anheuser-Busch black box theater in the Center of Contemporary Arts (COCA), 524 Trinity Ave., University City, MO, 63130. For more information call (314) 520-9557 or visit them on-line at www.orangegirls.org. Brilliant costumes by Teresa Dogget; very good set, sound and lights.
Production Photos: John Lamb