By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Feels good to start the theater year with some laughs. First show of 2011, Death Is No Small Change!, is right on the money. It's the new comedy from Pegasus Theatre, now performing its yearly three-week run at the Eisemann Center in Richardson. There's nothing like a Pegasus show and until you've seen one, it's hard to believe they can do what they do in the way that they do it.
Like all of their previous comedies, this latest, written by company founder and lead actor Kurt Kleinmann, is staged in Pegasus' trademarked "Living Black and White" style. Scenery, costumes, wigs and makeup—everything but the actors' tongues and eyeballs—are rendered color-free in silvery tones to resemble the vintage movie thrillers to which Pegasus pays homage. Stretching the gimmick a tetch further is this new show's wacky sci-fi plot about purloined brains still alive and throbbing in jars in a mysterious lab. Everywhere you look in this play, there's gray matter.
Directed by Susan Sargeant with plenty of sharply timed comic snap, Death Is No Small Change! pays off with the most lavish visual effects (thanks to terrifically detailed scenery by Clare Floyd DeVries, lighting by Sam Nance and costumes by Aaron Patrick Turner) and the wittiest, best-plotted, most polished script since Pegasus departed their longtime Deep Ellum headquarters in 2002. The wide stage at the Eisemann Center hasn't always been a comfortable fit for the little company's black-and-white shows, but this time Kleinmann has thought big, creating larger-than-life characters and hiring actors skilled at painting the comedy with broad strokes.
Blend the lesser Frankenstein films of the 1930s with the better Bugs Bunny cartoons of the early 1960s and you get the amusingly stylized flourishes of Death Is No Small Change!, which clips along nicely thanks to the work of its comedy-centric cast.
In the key role of creepy scientist Dr. Lionel Yarazelski, actor Mario Cabrera, who acted in and directed many Pegasus productions in the old Deep Ellum days, is a stitch, using the burbley voice and melodramatic gestures of great old horror movie actors like Vincent Price and Claude Rains. Dr. "Y," as he's known in his lab (leading to some silly "Y/why" mix-ups in the dialogue), is a suspect in a string of gruesome murders. In each case, the victim's brain was removed. Could the doctor be using the stolen organs in the lightning-jolted secret "dream catching" experiments he's conducting in his institute on a storm-swept private island?
Investigating the crimes is the flustered, trench-coated flatfoot Lieutenant Foster (Chad Cline), whose efforts will, as always in Kleinmann's plays, be thwarted at every turn by "world-famous detective and aspiring actor" Harry Hunsacker (Kleinmann). How clueless a sleuth is Hunsacker? "I normally don't like to cloud my mind with facts," he says without a hint of irony or self-awareness. At Hunsacker's elbow and doing most of the hard work of covering his boss' endless stumbles while uncovering the murderer's identity is able assistant Nigel Grouse (Ben Bryant), a smart but shy recovering alcoholic with a weak spot for flirtatious ladies.
The other characters in Death could've been plucked right out of an old black-and-white Warner Bros. fright flick: the doctor's twitchy, neurotic daughter, Miranda (Catherine DuBord, striking ludicrously funny poses); Sebastian, the wild-haired Igor-type butler (played with wizardly expressions by David Benn), whose every entrance is greeted by a loud crack of thunder; a tipsy maid (Leslie Patrick) who says she keeps a bottle of hooch stashed for special occasions, "like days that end in Y;" and four other oddball scientists (David Meglino, Nancy Sherrard, Charissa Lee, Greg Pugh), skulking around the premises in oversized lab coats.
In a moment of inspired lunacy, Kleinmann has Harry Hunsacker and Lt. Foster undergo an accidental brain exchange when a lightning bolt electrifies the lab's dream-catching machinery to which they're both attached. Suddenly Kleinmann and Cline are playing each other's roles and doing a fine job of further confusing the audience as they assume the other's accent and physical rhythms. Another fun sequence, played without dialogue, has all the characters sneaking in and out of the set's numerous doors and popping like human cuckoos out of hidden passages under the stairs and from behind tall bookcases.
It's always tricky to pinpoint the perp in the Pegasus plays; as a playwright, Kleinmann's a master of the old switcheroo. Sometimes it's the most obvious suspect who did the deed, sometimes not. The audience at Death is invited to enter their guesses about who the brain thief is during an intermission contest. At the end of the show, those who correctly picked the murderer are eligible for a prize.
For 25 years, Kleinmann and his Pegasus Theatre players have been painting themselves as gray as old celluloid to trick viewers into watching their brilliantly creative live "movies." They may do only one production a year now, but with Death Is No Small Change!, they've made it well worth the wait.
A complementary follow-up to the black-and-white Pegasus show could be Young Frankenstein, the musical theater version of the Mel Brooks movie spoofing the same genre of horror films. The national tour is at the Winspear Opera House through January 23 as part of the Lexus Broadway Series (review coming next week).