By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The latest out-of-town import to arrive at the Dallas Theater Center's Kalita Humphreys stage lets the audience see through walls. In Robert Hewett's The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead, actress Annalee Jefferies plays all seven characters. To transition from housewife (redhead) to gossipy neighbor (brunette) to alluring Russian (blonde), and others, she remains onstage, simply slipping behind see-through panels that allow her transformations to be viewed in silhouette.
With wigs, costume pieces, surprisingly few makeup enhancements and considerable talent, Jefferies becomes several old and young women, one man and a child. Each talks directly to the audience about the circumstances of a crime of passion and its aftereffects on all involved. More detail about the plot would spoil it, so let's just say that one of the three women in the title kills someone because of something a second one said about the third. And it's all a big mistake, a tragic flood of misunderstanding that begins with the drip-drip-drip of rumor about a husband's suspected infidelity.
As accounts overlap and intertwine, the play makes startling, but intriguing, switches in tone. The opening monologue by Rhonda the redhead, a suburban housewife, seems to signal a comedy ahead. But the next character, a dour lesbian doctor, offers a somber recounting of a death. The mood zigzags after that from comedy to drama—the saddest moment being the plaintive invitation by a 4-year-old boy to his mother's "furenal." It's clear he doesn't understand the permanence of loss.
The Blonde, etc., is a lively two hours of theater despite its dependence on gimmicks we've seen far too often in new plays. The one-actor/many voices trick made Doug Wright's tranny drama, I Am My Own Wife, the critics' darling (though not this critic) a few years ago. DTC brought that one in not long after staging the lesser import Fully Committed, a frenetic one-actor comedy about a restaurant reservations clerk that came off like a ventriloquist act sans puppets. Between those two came Bad Dates, in which one woman, played with great spark by New York actress Julie White, spent just more than an hour recounting her miserable history with men.
What sets Hewett's Rashomon-like two-act play apart and gives it special zing is Jefferies' sterling performance. A veteran of major stages in Houston and Washington, D.C., this actress has a gift for zeroing in on tiny, specific gestures and unusual vocal quirks to create her characters. For the redhead, she sounds a bit like the gravel-voiced Gwen Verdon. As an 80-year-old, she plucks a hard candy from her lips and places it just so on the arm of her lawn chair. For the opportunistic neighbor Lynette, she throws all her weight into her bare thighs. She gets the breathless excitement of the child just right, as well the jaw-jutting arrogance of Rhonda's 45-year-old husband.
The phrase "tour de force" gets tossed onto just about any one-actor show as a nod to how difficult it is to carry a whole play, solo. What Jefferies is doing is more of a tour de mega-force. If she weren't changing wigs and costumes in view of the audience, it would be hard to believe she's doing it all alone.
As to Hewett's play itself, it's not perfect. For once DTC, in partnership with Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park, is putting on a piece before it's been to New York, so it might still be something of a work in progress for the Australian playwright (a smaller studio production was done in Sarasota, but DTC's is regarded as the American premiere). The first act wobbles unevenly, but the second act is a gripper. A tragic game of telephone (where one person's conversation is repeated and misinterpreted by those down the line) evolves into a meditation on larger themes of forgiveness and personal responsibility.
Directed by Mark Lamos, a big name in regional theater, the production feels more important than it probably has a right to because of the sleek, video-enhanced scenic design by Andrew Jackness. During Jefferies' between-scene metamorphoses, images from her previous monologue and the one yet to come go floating by on large overhead screens. Only as the actress speaks about them do the mysterious visuals of a floating ice cream cone, burning cigar box and pair of scissors finally make sense.
Just this side of profound, the play is enhanced by the astoundingly astute work of its star. Because of Annalee Jefferies, The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead offers a brush with greatness.
Others might dismiss Opal's Husband, the latest show by the matinee-only One Thirty Productions at the Bath House Cultural Center, as lighthearted, artless fluff. It is lighthearted, artless fluff, but that doesn't mean it isn't good theater.
Supported by funds from the city's Office of Cultural Affairs, Opal's Husband is the second in a series by One Thirty, which targets theatergoers who can't or prefer not to go out at night. That's mostly an older crowd. This is the only theater company in town preceding each performance not just with a plea to turn off cell phones but with a reminder to turn up hearing aids.