Friday, February 6, 2004

The mirror has two faces: How to write double entendre

Published in the Portland Phoenix

There is an art to doing it. The approach must be soft and gentle, though the intent is obvious. Unless of course you’re thinking of something else. In which case its meaning is equally plain, but completely different.

Ken Ludwig has great skill at it, carefully constructing his characters’ words and actions to present two versions of reality: the one we think should be happening, and the one we know the characters believe their parts in. Vague words assume specific meanings and errors in judgment abound.

In Lend Me A Tenor, Ludwig has created a mad world inhabited by a John Cleese–like theater producer, a boring dweeb (who turns out to have incredible strength in his, well, you know), a mercurial Italian opera singer, an incredibly capable bellhop, and a gaggle of women who see right through the men, except when the men don’t get it either, at which point the hilarity begins. That’s right at the start.

The Portland Stage promo literature says the comedy hinges (ha, ha) on a door opening or closing at "just the right moment," but it’s fortunate that isn’t true. In fact, if it were, this play wouldn’t be funny at all. Synchronized door-opening, intended to move the action from one part of the set to another, is not a strength of this cast.

But only the promo-lit writer might care. These actors — the actual crux of this or any comedy — are wonderful, with movement and timing honed by long nights of rehearsal. They have immersed themselves, with the help of director Drew Barr, until they see the brilliant comedy of each moment.

It doesn’t hurt that the aforementioned dweeb-cum-hero (Max, played by Tom Ford) is familiar from two years as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, adding a new facet to an old character, or that Aled Davies, playing the theater manager Saunders, has been heavily influenced by Basil Fawlty (and has played Scrooge, himself, interestingly). And they’re helped along by Ron Botting, as tippling womanizing Italian tenor Gary Hart — I mean Tito Merelli — who channels Governor John Baldacci’s physical mannerisms and Father Guido Sarducci’s accent. (As an aside, has anyone ever met a hotel bellhop (John Hildreth) who is both fluent in Italian and could play a wonderful Parsifal?)

The women are excellent, too. Janice O’Rourke (as Maggie) opens with a lip-sync number Milli Vanilli should emulate, and goes on to discover true passion in disguise. Barbara Mather (as Julia) swans around the stage like a good theater-board diva; Jordan Simmons (as Diana) hunts down her quarry but misses the final blow. Meanwhile, Michele Ragusa (as Maria) lays down her smoky blaze around Tito, lighting fires under Max and Saunders.

Other participants in the opening night production included a chatty, well dressed group in the seats behind me, who often had useful information to add to the play’s goings-on. For example, when Tito takes too much phenobarbitol in this 1930s-era play, a man helpfully remarked that the drug was "one of the first medicines." In the past I’ve inveighed against the surround-sound nature of performances at other theaters. I am glad to see that Portland Stage, no doubt mindful that access to theater is a culturally enriching experience, has not yet banned nattering nabobs from its seats. (Can’t plays, like movies, include brief mind-your-manners scenes before the main show begins?)

A note of caution for those who fail to suspend disbelief upon entering a theater: Don’t believe Max’s words when he tells you, "This is not an opera." Of course it is. Besides the obvious operatic singing from time to time (which is very well done), this play bears all the hallmarks of good opera, not least of which is the larger-than-life performance by an underdog who becomes the real star.

Another excellent indicator of the play’s true genre is the amount of alcohol consumed by the main character. Ron Botting downs a half-bottle of wine in about 10 minutes; blissfully, the next task assigned to his role is to lie still abed for quite some time. Nevertheless, he is prepared for a second-act Keystone Kops-like runabout. (It should be noted that those illustrious officers never had women like these. Seems they’ll toss off their clothes for anyone who can find the right note.)

The finale — a reprise of the entire show in under two minutes — showcases the physical comedy and illustrates the fun playwright Ludwig — and the audience — has with words, made notable by their absence in the mimed closing credits.

Lend Me A Tenor
Written by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Drew Barr. With Ron Botting, Tom Ford, Aled Davies, and Janice O’Rourke. Portland Stage Company, through February 22. Call (207) 774-0465.


• Democracy in action at Portland Stage Company: PSC is asking for input on what you want to see on its stage next season. A short list of plays for your perusal is available at the theater, so go check it out and cast your vote!

• For those who say new or unknown theater work doesn’t draw well, you should sit down with Mike Levine, who has figured out how to get big audiences to come to unknown plays by little-known playwrights. In the I-hope-you-didn’t-miss-it department at the Maine Playwrights Festival this past weekend: Paul Haley howling like a wolf, Stephen McLaughlin as a short-order genie, Miranda Hope releasing stress and an egg, Michael Crockett wishing for pierced eardrums, and Suze Allen’s twisting look at incest.