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CurtainUp DC  Report: March 1998
Part 1: Opposites Attract?

by Les Gutman

March DC Report Topics
NOTE: The March Report is divided into two parts. (The second part will be posted toward the end of the month.) Click on the links below to go directly to all of the topics once they are posted.

Lovers and Executioners, by John Strand, after Montfleury
Kudzu, by Doug Marlette, Jack Herrick and Bland Simpson
Soft Click of a Switch, by Carter W. Lewis - in Part 2
Blues Rooms, by Dianne McIntyre and Olu Dara - in Part 2
Web pages mentioned in this report

Since the inception of the DC Report, I've always tried to establish some nexus between the shows under discussion. This time, I'm stumped. A 17th Century French comedy and a Southern Musical based on a popular comic strip? May I suggest a palate cleanser between courses? 
Review: Lovers and Executioners
Leave it to the French to invent something as romantic, as unpredictable, as funny and yet as solemn as this, and then to forget it. It took me three books on the theater to find one that provided any semblance of an understanding of who the playwright Antoine Jacob de Montfleury was. His own story is almost as much fun as this, his best known (but virtually unknown) play.

John Strand found Montfleury's 17th Century La femme juge et partie, and from it cobbled this terrific new translation/adaptation. Here's what you need to know of the story: Bernard (James Warwick), thinking his wife, Julie (Judith Hawking), is guilty of cuckoldry, leaves her on a deserted island to die. She survives, returns to his town as a man and proceeds to be appointed magistrate. She (now he) has him arrested and tries him for the murder of his wife. Thinking his wife dead, Bernard has been courting Constance (Ellen Karas), as have two other suitors, a conquistador (J. Fred Shiffman) and Julie, now known as Frederic.

If you have the feeling you've seen this all before, well, you have, and yet you haven't. Yes, it relies on mistaken identity courtesy of cross-dressing; yes, it has some fancy swordfighting; yes, it has some clever word games. But, no, it is not another Marivaux, and it's certainly not Moliere. "Shakespearean" is a word that does comes to mind. (I should also distinguish it clearly from the similar-sounding terrain covered in French farces like the current NY production of Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear, a link to CurtainUp's review of which is at the bottom of this page.)
Strand's adaptation, as knowingly and brilliantly styled by Kyle Donnelly, is a wonder. Wildly comic yet keenly dramatic, it walks the tightrope above silly and campy without ever losing its balance. Set with precision in rhyming couplets, it overflows with wit, but rarely without purpose. ("Is this some jest?" the conquistador asks when he discovers Frederic is a woman. "I take it seriously", she answers; "to me it is my breast.") As much fun as Donnelly has with the material, she never surrenders to baser instincts. There is an angry story she wants to tell; all of the bawdiness is merely the lubricant.

In this balancing act, she is blessed with a talented cast possessed of finely-tuned comic sensibilities as well as keen emotional insights. There are no weak links in the chain. Warwick is a noble buffoon, alternatingly haughty and fragile; Hawking sets a splendid tone, as commanding as she is amusing; Karas is excellent playing off her perch as the seeming object of everyone's attention; Shiffman keeps things rolling as the over-the-top Spanish gallant. These characters are equalled and enhanced by the wonderful supporting work of their servants: Frederic's dutiful but thoughtful (and enamored) attendant/accomplice (and fencing instructor), Octavius (T J Edwards); Bernard's good-humored if complicit Guzman (a remarkable Wesley Mann, think a continental version of Jeeves) and Constance's maid, Beatrice (the hysterical Nancy Robinette who seizes the best monologue in the play and also ends up holding all the cards by play's end).

Simple sets (mostly evoking the town square) are offset by exuberant period costumes ranging from precisely suitable to suitably outrageous. Rob Milburn's sound design is especially good both in tone and in effect.

Montfleury's own story (as related by John Strand in the excellent program notes) tells us much. The son of a famous actor/playwright and a lawyer/diplomat, he was a bitter rival of Moliere. His style (as evidenced by this play) emanated from Spanish theatrical traditions, whereas Moliere's influences were Italian.

La femme juge et partie was judged the equal of Le Tartuffe by critics of the day. As John Strand notes, however,"[t]ime is the ultimate critic". Lovers and Executioners suggests that time may have more to say still on this subject. From this critic's perspective, Montfluery ought to be presented alongside the masterworks of his better known contemporaries.
by John Strand, after Montfleury 
with James Warwick, Judith Hawking, Ellen Karas, J. Fred Shiffman, Wesley Mann, T J Edwards and Nancy Robinette 
Directed by Kyle Donnelly 
Set Design: Zack Brown 
Costumes: Lindsay W. Davis 
Lighting: Nancy Schertler 
Arena Stage Fischandler Stage, 1101 6th Street SW (202) 488-3300 
Web page address is shown below 
February 27 - April 5, 1998 
Reviewed by Les Gutman
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Review: Kudzu
Kudzu, based on co-author Doug Marlette's popular comic strip of the same name, is an enjoyable, entertaining evening in a theater. What makes it enjoyable is the unexpectedly (to me, at least) effective music of the Red Clay Ramblers.  What makes it entertaining is the talent and effort of the well-directed cast.

The Red Clay Ramblers' blend of music (which they describe as mountain, country, rock, Dixieland, bluegrass and gospel, but which here seems even broader, extending even as far as hip-hop) provides an engaging anchor for the escapades of the denizens of the fictional Southern town of Bypass. The richly textured quilt this music creates sets a high standard for the synthesis of the new South the other elements of the show must achieve.

Standouts in the cast are the endearing James Ludwig as the title character, Kudzu Dubose, a very animated Rodney Hicks as his friend Maurice (his dance skills getting much better exposure here than they did in the virtually dance-less original Broadway company of Rent) and the rough but sentimental  Nicole Bradin, as Mike (short for Michelle). We are treated to very good performances also from Roger Howell as the villainous Big Bubba and Joliet F. Harris as Maurice's mother. Any number of songs impressed, from the softer "Fatherless" and "Duet for One" featuring Kudzu and Mike (as well as the latter's "Hey, Earl"), to Big Bubba's more brash rendition of  "Mine" and the still funnier numbers of the Ramblers (performing onstage as the Bypass Boys), especially "Jesus Was Not an Alien".

Having said this, if you now reread my opening sentence, you'll see how carefully I had to choose my words. For, as successful as Kudzu is as entertainment, it doesn't hold up well as theater. Based as it is on a comic strip, perhaps we should expect cardboard cutouts instead of three-dimensional characters. Not only do half of the characters lack any relationship to the plot of  the show -- in particular, Maurice and his mother (two-third's of the town's African American population) and Kudzu's obese friend, Nasal T. Lardbottom (Kevin Carolan) -- but even those characters that seemingly have a purpose never garner much attention outside of their often-very-touching songs.

The plot: On his 18th birthday, Kudzu is deeded his long-absent father's real estate, which includes a gas station and a number of acres covered in kudzu ("a leguminous vine introduced into the American South to control soil erosion"). A local businessman (Big Bubba) conspires with the local Baptist minister (Tim Hodgin) to "get the town behind" his plan to acquire Kudzu's property for a  Japanese-owned flagmaking factory (although he actually seems to have an ulterior motive). Meanwhile, Kudzu, who wants to be a writer, is infatuated with Bubba's cheerleader daughter (Donna English). He doesn't seem to notice that Mike is quite taken with him.

What's more troubling than the thin characterizations (or the various plot deadends that I won't belabor) is that, almost without exception, the principal purpose of most of the characters is to perpetuate stereotypes, most often as the brunt of a joke:  Maurice is there to teach Nasal, the resident fat boy, to play basketball; Mazee (Maurice's mother) serves as the hackneyed maid/belting gospel singer. (I hope she gets paid for every time she has to say "Lord have mercy".) And don't forget the unscrupulous preacher, the evil businessman, the blond cheerleader, the Japanese kabuki businessmen looking for "nightlife" or the totally inexplicable Mystic Pilgrim (Chris Frank), who seems to confound several Eastern religions in the body of a Hare Krishna.

The writing here (although sometimes veering into either the obvious or the obscure) is generally pretty clever. Marlette and company, like the cast, possess ample talent. It could have been marshalled to better advantage.

The physical production is playful, inventive and attractive (including a stunning Marlette cartoon scrim featuring a bird's-eye view of the town of Bypass). Scenic transitions are handled cleverly, and the sensitive lighting (especially in conjunction with the mood-setting backdrops) is top notch.

Marlette seems to be a lover of metaphors. Kudzu the plant is a metaphor for Kudzu the teenager. (It also strikes me that the boy is at least somewhat representative of the author himself.) In his notes on this, his first venture into musical theater, Marlette refers to musical theater as a soufflé. In this he seems right on target: it can be tasty even if it falls.
by Doug Marlette, Jack Herrick and Bland Simpson 
with James Ludwig, Beth Leaval, Roger Howell, Tim Hodgin, Rodney Hicks, Joliet F. Harris, Donna English, Kevin Carolan, Nicole Bradin and the Red Clay Ramblers 
Directed by Lisa Portes 
Choreography: Sabrina Peck 
Set Design: James Youmans 
Costume Design: Michael Alan Stein 
Lighting Design: Richard Riddell 
Ford's Theatre, 511 10th Street NW (202) 347 - 4833 
Web page address is shown below 
March 4, 1998 - June, 1998 
Reviewed by Les Gutman
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Links to Web Pages Mentioned in this Report
Arena Website:
CurtainUp's review of A Flea in Her Ear
Ford's Website:

©March 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp
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