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Manbites Dog Theater is taking a break from its normal intensity with a bit of comic playacting for the dark days of December. Jordan Harrison’s Act a Lady, although dealing with the serious subjects of gender roles and the powers of art, is unlikely to have the same life-altering effect on the audience as the play-within-a-play has on its community.
The Elks Club in a small Midwestern town is accustomed to putting on plays … but this time they’ve hired an outside director, Zina (J Evarts), who plans to have the men dress in “women-type” clothes and perform a campy farce of an 18th century romance-horror story, in heavy make-up provided by the adorable Lorna (Karen Burns). When the men go to the straitlaced Dot (Julie Oliver) for permission to use her clothes and for her approval of the whole enterprise, they find her — where else — in her kitchen, her practical black shoes ready to stamp out sin.
Once her husband Miles (Derrick Ivey) and the other boys, square-jawed True (Ryan Brock) and soft-faced Casper (Lance Waycaster) wheedle her around, the plot is utterly predictable. Dressing and acting as women is going to change these guys’ lives. The dangerous Zina will turn out to be a wise woman. There will be some hitch in the production and the practical Dot will save the day — figuratively and literally wearing the pants. A person or persons will be revealed to themselves as gay and/or artistic, and will be freed by this artistic endeavor. Yup. The one thing I didn’t foresee was how bad the accordion music would be.
Except perhaps for those mired in the difficulties of being a nonconforming self in a conformist world, the storyline is not the reason to see this play. Go for the acting. Derrick Ivey in particular is amazing in his three roles. Not only is he the mild-mannered Miles, but he morphs into the crazed Lady Romola — and into her erstwhile lover Valentino. His transformation is so complete in each that it is hard to remember that it is all the same actor. The indefatigable Ivey, a mainstay of Triangle theater for many years, also designed the excellent costumes for this show.
Lance Waycaster is also impressive, both as the artistic Casper and as the maid Greta in the farce. His is the crucial role, and he delicately delineates Casper’s hopes and fears. He’s in love with True, and in Greta’s gown he can show it. But True, though interested — and kind — is having none of it. Ryan Brock was a little too muted as True, but he’s a knock-out as the Countess Roquefort, and at his best when his characters are in the half-dressed, in-between state of uncertain identity.
Director Katja Hill is an artist who understands the necessity of space in time — she’s very good at stretching time out, in putting in the pauses and holding the moment, of slowing the pace where others might speed it up. Usually, this is highly effective; but in this play, a more varied tempo would have been beneficial. Because there are no surprises in the plot, it would be more enjoyable if the laughs flowed more quickly among the islands of deep feeling.
Act a Lady continues at Manbites Dog Theater through Dec. 20th. See our calendar for details.