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Ask any comedian and he’ll tell you: the secret to good comedy is timing. And timing is also a requirement if your play is a comedy; lose your timing and odds are you will lose your audience as well. That same comedian might also tell you that another aspect of good comedy is the concept of “KISS:” Keep It Simple, Sir. Unless you are a relative of Houdini, complicating your comedy with too many threads leads one to the proverbial tangled web.
These two notions lead one to wonder, then, why the current work on-stage by Raleigh, NC-based Flying Machine Theatre Company, playing at the Common Ground Theatre in Durham, manages to miss the point of both these aspects. The play, Red Herring, is one devil of an animal to produce. It has a cast of seven, but a list of characters numbering 17; it takes place in three different places simultaneously; and this work is written in such a way that the technical aspects of the show are nearly impossible to manage.
The play seeks to introduce a number of different wacky sequences of events that all take place within the week of Oct. 29 through Nov. 4, 1952. Two of them are proposals. A third involves the death of a fisherman. One of the girls proposed to is U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s daughter. And the man who wishes to wed her is a scientist working on the blueprint of the nuclear bomb. He is also, by the by, a spy for the Soviets. And all this takes place in the first three scenes of the play, which runs a lengthy two and three-quarters hours before any of this gets sorted out.
Let’s meet a few of the cast members. Our lead is Maggie Pelletier (Stephanie Maysonave), a Boston detective who — in the very first scene — gets proposed to by her current bunk-mate, an FBI G-man named Frank Keller (Torrey B. Lawrence). Her response is, “Not yet.” In that same scene, she is called away to investigate a death. Meanwhile, halfway across the country in Wisconsin, a nuclear scientist by the name of James “Buddy” Appel (Eric Morales) proposes to his best girl, the young miss Lynn McCarthy (Whitney Boreiko), who readily accepts. He proposes while they are watching her dad’s hearings on TV. He then tells her he spies for the USSR.
Jump back to Boston. Maggie finds the deceased, a man she is told is Andrei Borchevsky (Mark Zumbach), a Russian immigrant who makes his living from the sea. A fisherman, he trades in herring. Maggie’s not buying it. This man’s hands have never touched a sea net. And he’s too pale to be spending his days at sea. Nevertheless, the man’s landlady, Mrs. Kravitz (Lisa Cates), swears it is he. He’s been her tenant for some time now, and why shouldn’t she recognize her own tenant, fer’ cryin’ out loud? Maggie’s ears are pricked, and she strongly suspects that — at the very least — Mrs. Kravitz is being less than honest. So she goes to the coroner, Woody (Todd Igoe), to find out what the autopsy shows.
This complicated series of simultaneous events is engaging at first; the cast is strong and the plot seems wickedly perverse. But somewhere around the middle of Act I things begin to change. We start to realize that this is taking a very long time to go anywhere; we are starting to lose interest in these characters; we have certainly lost any and all interest in this FBI investigation of a possible spy ring (the reason Keller is in Boston in the first place); and, despite our best efforts, we have become uncommonly aware of the set — or, more correctly, the changes in the set. The wood platforms are built to look like a pier, the reason for which becomes obvious — eventually. But there are so many scenes, and so many long and difficult scene changes between them, that the necessity of actually doing the scene changes interrupts the flow and timing of the play. At one point, a scene that could not have lasted more than 60 seconds was both preceded and followed by a two-to-three minute scene change.
Which does lead me to one happy note: the music. The music selected to cover these scene changes is timely (for the period), recognizable to old codgers like yours truly, and the tunes selected are nicely arranged and performed. And since we get to hear so much of it, it turns out the music is one of the best things about this show.
Flying Machine is to be commended for taking on this play; it is, to be sure, extremely challenging and parts of it are rip-roaringly funny. But the play needs to be reworked by the playwright, to remove so many unwanted set changes and keep the timing and pace flowing. As it now exists, Red Herring is too long, too slow, and too tangled for all the time and energy that goes into getting through a performance. Too much care and energy have been put into a show that, in its current form, simply doesn’t warrant the commitment.
Flying Machine Theatre Company presents Red Herring Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 13-15, at 8 p.m. at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $14 ($10 students and teachers). 919/594-1140 or etix, via the presenter's site. Flying Machine Theatre Company: http://www.theflyingmachine.net/productions/redherring.html. Common Ground Theatre: http://www.cgtheatre.com/.
The high-flying Raleigh, NC-based Flying Machine Theatre Company will present the area premiere of Red Herring, Michael Hollinger’s film-noirish romantic comedy/murder mystery, Sept. 30-Oct. 15 at the Common Ground Theatre in Durham, NC. The show is set in 1952 in Cold War America during the heyday of U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) and his hunt for Communists in high places in government and the arts.
In reviewing previous productions of Red Herring, The Philadelphia Inquirer called the show “exceedingly funny,” “a genuinely human comedy about six people in search of love in a mixed-up world,” and “a thoroughly engaging piece of theatre.” The Main Line Times described Red Herring as “a valentine celebrating love and marriage” and “a fun, engaging, farcical romp with a cleverly complex plot and a loving heart.”
“Flying Machine board members went through a lengthy process of finding plays, passing them around, and voting on them,” says Flying Machine co-founder and director Marta King. “We chose Red Herring in this fashion last year — I don’t remember who found it first — but I was charmed and amused by it on my first reading.”
She adds, “I was struck by Hollinger’s inventiveness — I mean come on — Joe McCarthy’s daughter’s fiancé is a Russian spy who asks her to deliver bomb blueprints inside a box of Velveeta cheese[. There is] a secret code which happens to be a famous Ogden Nash poem[,] a Quaker wedding in handcuffs, [and an] overseas phone conversation with a delay[.] So, it’s this crazy comedy, a murder mystery in a film-noir style, that is really a fable about marriage. I laughed out loud reading it to myself, and I was moved by the ending.
“The biggest challenge to both the cast and the designers,” says Marta King, “is the [play’s] structure — it has 24 scenes that take place in such locations as a hotel room, a pier, a bridal shop, and a confessional, etc., etc. There are 18 characters (actors play multiple roles), and the pace needs to be very quick. And — this is important — we have very limited funds. And we are in a small space [at Common Ground Theatre].”
She adds, “The [play’s] structure makes momentum challenging — this is what we are working towards. Oh yeah, it’s set in 1952, which made it challenging for costumes and props. Acting wise — getting the nutty comedy and the heart — [Red Herring] is an acting challenge, too. [The cast has] really enjoyed playing multiple roles — that part wasn’t as challenging as I expected it to be. Todd Igoe is playing the most characters — he is a comedian, and he is particularly suited to this.
“There are three different plotlines that all intersect,” King explains. “Maggie (Stephanie Maysonave) is a lady cop (‘a flatfoot in heels’) who has been chasing the Mercury Dime Killer for seven years [but the killer] is constantly changing his identity. [Maggie] is in love with Frank (Torrey B. Lawrence), an FBI agent who has been trying to bust a Russian Spy ring for two years.
“In the first scene,” King says, “[Maggie] refuses [Frank’s] proposal, for mysterious reasons. Lynn McCarthy (Whitney Boreiko) is [also] faced with a proposal from her boyfriend, James (Eric Morales), who reveals to her that he is a Russian spy, and proceeds to enlist her help with a drop-off. His request forces her to question the marriage; her situation is compounded by the fact that she is pregnant with another man’s baby and is keeping this a secret from James.”
King says, “Andrei Borchevsky (Mark Zumbach) has been enlisted as a spy by the Russians in order to free his wife, Olga, a journalist, from the Soviet Gulag. He is in love with Mrs. Kravitz (Lisa Cates), a boarding-house landlady who has killed her husband [and] who was involved with the Russian spy ring as well. Though Andrei and Mrs. Kravitz are in love with each other, he remains committed to saving his wife. In an effort to cover up the murder, Mrs. Kravitz identifies the dead body as Andrei, who then pretends to be Mr. Kravitz, a mute, and a guy from Oklahoma (he is big fan of the musical of that name).
“The characters constantly meet each other throughout the story,” reports Marta King, “but without realizing who they are meeting. They all end up on the pier together in the last scene. That’s all I’m gonna say.”
In addition to director Marta King, the show’s production team includes set and lighting designer Curtis Jones, costume designer Kat Henwood, props master David Davis, music and sound designer Kevin Silva, acting coach Robin Monteith, and stage manager Rachel Zielinsky.
Marta King says, “The set is comprised of simple, neutral pieces that get used in multiple ways, including a pier and an important billboard that serve as a metaphor throughout the play. For example, a crate on the pier appears as a bedside table. Even the set pieces have multiple identities, and may not be what they appear to be.”
King says the show’s lighting is film noir, with “slats of light, patterned light, just enough light to see” and its costumes and hats are “reflective of 1952, film noir, and of very different characters, particularly when an actor is playing different roles.” She quips, “Cigarettes are almost a costume.”
In describing the show’s music and sound design, King says, “Kevin [Silva] did a fabulous job recreating McCarthy Senate subcommittee hearings on the red threat, and also a jingle for kippers. The music is an important element, because it needs to carry the energy through all the scene changes. He used noir sound tracks [and] popular music of the day, and kept it unified with jazz. We would have conversations like this about the music: Me. ‘This piece needs to be sexy and romantic, but also goofy, a little mysterious, and also up-tempo.’ Kevin: ‘Gotcha.’ And he did.”
Director Marta King says, “A red herring is a clue that leads you in the wrong direction. This play is all about that in many ways. One day, David Davis, our prop-master, said, ‘You know the whole play is really a red herring, because you think it’s a murder mystery, but really it’s about love.’”
Flying Machine Theatre Company presents Red Herring Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 6-8, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 9, at 3 p.m.; and Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 13-15, at 8 p.m. at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $14 ($10 students and teachers). 919/594-1140 or etix, via the presenter's site. Flying Machine Theatre Company: http://www.theflyingmachine.net/productions/redherring.html. Common Ground Theatre: http://www.cgtheatre.com/.