When they're up and dancing, A Bollywood Lysistrata, a new piece by Level Ground Arts in their new home at KD Studio Theatre, feels as fresh and salty-sweet as the cool Indian yogurt drink known as lassi. If only they could have danced all night.
It's the standing-around-talking parts that sour the exotic flavors in this blend of Bollywood musical and bawdy 2500-year-old comedy by Aristophanes. Acting styles are off-kilter, with men doing early clown college mugging and women playing it straight. Blocking devolves into actors posed like a police station lineup. The dialogue, adapted by company member Andi Allen (who also directed, choreographed and plays a lead in the show) too often wraps earthy jokes in the stilted, formal language of academic translation. "Perhaps the dust of the road has muddled your mind," says a turban-wearing Rajah (Jon Morehouse) to his headstrong wife (Lorna Woodford).
Muddled is the word, though the jumping off point is good. The much-adapted classic Greek comedy has the women of Athens and Sparta refusing to make love until their bellicose husbands broker peace and end the Peloponnesian War (in the original, the men map out territories on the body of a courtesan named "Peace"). In Allen's version, set in 1899 during the British Raj, Indian and English wives conspire to withhold affection until their men quit playing cricket. The fed-up "cricket widows" barricade themselves inside a temple and declare their boycott, led by the fiery Lakshmi (Rhonda Durant in the show's best performance). They emerge only to dance seductively, teasing the chorus of sex-deprived husbands. "I shall remain within while you remain without," huffs Lillian (Allen), eldest and palest of the British memsahibs, defying her husband the colonel (R. Bradford Smith).
The Indian setting and the gimmick of cricket becoming the sticky wicket between the sexes are fine within the framework of the old play. Better, in fact, than college basketball was in Dallas Theater Center's Lysistrata-inspired big-budget flop Give It Up!, which had angry cheerleaders holding out on horny boyfriends until the team won a game. That show missed entirely the point of the original Lysistrata. In Aristophanes' play, women weary of abandonment by warmongering husbands also seek to improve their lives and their world by stopping men from killing each other. With a revolutionary message of "make love, not war," Lysistrata, first performed in 410 B.C., presents its united band of early feminists strategizing on the only battlefield they can rule: the bedroom.
A Bollywood Lysistrata remains almost too true to its source material, with its abundance of dumb puns on the words "stiff," "hard" and "come." Allen's script begs for heavy editing (like, lose every other line). The whole production could use a final polish. Except when the ladies throw themselves into Indian-style shimmies and shoulder-shrugging dance moves, the show stumbles and stalls. It doesn't go far enough in mimicking or satirizing the cockeyed whimsy of those popular Indian movies. There is a "wet sari" number, a staple of every Bollywood musical, but its performer, Camille Monae, is stuck so far upstage it's hard to see her. The big belly-dance solo stars a pretty girl (Katherine Anthony) with hips so narrow she can't bump, much less grind. And with only four dance sequences in two hours, that leaves too much time for long stretches of dry dialogue and "bah-ha-ha" fake stage laughter.
Now that they've escaped the rough dungeon-like ambience of Deep Ellum's Dallas Hub theater, where Level Ground Arts performed its first full season, the young semi-professional company led by founder Billy Fountain will have to pay closer attention to the details if they want to mature. Not that they should get too slick. Their thing is to take well-known low-budget movies and cult screen classics and translate them to live performance. They've done zombies, campy sci-fi and a musical based on The Poseidon Adventure. This season will include a new adaptation of the spooky 1962 flick Carnival of Souls, then Santa Claus vs. the Martians and Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Inspiration from bad movies is a great beginning. The test is turning the finished projects into great theater.
Richardson Theatre Centre, the community theater tucked into a sweet little playhouse in a Richardson residential neighborhood, has just opened The Kitchen Witches by Caroline Smith. It's a stupid play. Worse than Legends. And who knew there could be a play worse than Legends?
But just as Legends was goosed into low comedy delirium by actors Coy Covington and B.J. Cleveland at Uptown Players last year, RTC's production of The Kitchen Witches benefits from the broad comic turns of a couple of funny chicks, Rachael Lindley and Lise Alexander.
Lindley plays Dolly Biddle, a middle-aged cooking show host who affects a thick Ukrainian accent and wears goofy aprons for her live 20-minute cable access TV program called Baking with Babcha. Her son Stephen (Ian Loomer) produces the show, staying just out of camera range to grab at the bottles of rum his tippling mom tries to hide on the set.
On the verge of cancellation, Dolly's show is saved by the appearance of her longtime nemesis, Cordon Bleu-trained Isobel Lomax (Alexander). The women's on-camera fights and some shocking personal revelations blurted out on-air boost the show's ratings past the "dozens of viewers" it usually gets. The station makes the women on-camera partners and they suddenly achieve a soupcon of strictly local stardom.
Playwright Smith should treat every royalty check for The Kitchen Witches like a winning lottery ticket. Her play about expert cooks doesn't even bother to get its biscuit recipe right. The second act freeze-dries any possibility of fun when Dolly is rushed to the hospital for a mysterious ailment and Izzy and Stephen try to bond in an emotional scene so overblown it could qualify for FEMA relief.
Directed by Chris Taylor, RTC's cast is sillier and better the more they stray from the awful script. Lindley is a stitch as the shorter and meaner "witch," spitting out ad libs and pulling faces like the old comedian Martha Raye in her Bugaloos kids' show days. With a passing resemblance to lard-loving TV food fryer Paula Deen, Alexander lets her character, Isobel, drip with a greasy Dixie chawm. The actresses play off each other beautifully, achieving a slow-burn Lucy and Ethel finesse through the more-than-a-little-bit-racist Gone with the Wind costume bit. They really sizzle in the face-smearing food fight. You knew there had to be a food fight.
In the RTC production, you're not supposed to notice or mind that Dolly and Isobel have been given what appear to be pocketknives to chop their veggies or that their appliances don't work (it's a plywood stove). The set of Martha Stewart it's not. Good thing Lindley, Alexander and Loomer, along with Fred Thompson in the nearly-silent role of the cameraman, are so skilled at slicing and dicing the crummy script. This is community theater, where they don't really care how the sausage gets made as long as you're laughing at the hams.