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Dallas Theater Center Finely Combs Through The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead

At DTC, you get seven characters for the price of one.

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.

 At the performance I reviewed, the house was packed with older patrons, many in wheelchairs or using walkers. They'd arrived in groups on buses from senior centers, assisted living facilities and churches. They were an enthusiastic crowd, roaring at the show's corny jokes and sight gags and applauding mightily at the curtain call for the cast's fine comedic work.

 I won't argue with their critical assessment. This is fun stuff, performed lovingly by professional actors, and directed by Marty van Kleeck who has real respect for the target audience.

 Opal's Husband is a silly old play by John Patrick, who won a Pulitzer for Teahouse of the August Moon and then in the 1960s churned out a bunch of comedies about Opal Kronkie, a junk-collecting small-town lady with a knack for getting her knickers into farcical twists. In the first of the series, Opal, played at the Bath House by puddin'-faced Gene Raye Price, tries to snag a husband for her best friend, fortuneteller Rosita (Carmela Lamberti), by answering a personal ad placed by "Mr. Handsome."

 He turns out to be the prune-y Captain Mooney (delightfully codger-esque Larry Randolph). He's 95 if he's a day and on the lam from a nursing home in an attempt to outrun his avaricious daughter (Mary Lang) and her goon of a husband (Stan Graner). Opal takes the old guy in and marries him to keep him out of trouble. No hanky much less panky ensues, but there are scads of mild jokes about the outhouse and how often the old sea cap'n needs to set sail for it.

 Opal often chats with the audience in casual asides, both between and during scenes. "The blessing to being homely like I am is you can never lose your looks," she says. She chortles gruffly like Mortimer Snerd. (If you're too young for that reference, you probably won't like this show).

 Over two quick hours, Opal and the captain outsmart the greedy kids, get their marriage annulled and make nice-nice again with Rosita, who is peeved when her pen pal fiancé turns out to be a geezer. By comparison, any half-hour spent in Mayberry with Andy and Aunt Bee would seem positively Chekhovian. But there's something gen-you-wine, as Opal would pronounce it, and rather touching about Patrick's people and his message that love conquers all or there's no place like homemade biscuits or something along those lines.

 Opal's Husband is light, clean fun. Best of all, if you go, you'll be home well before dark.


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