Open Toad

Dallas theatergoers can be aggressively vocal with their opinions. Some audience members open their gobs and offer audible reviews of a show while a performance is in progress. This sort of behavior may be appropriate at a gladiator ring or topless revue, but it is generally frowned upon at an evening of Shaw or Ibsen. Despite polite warnings from house managers during those awful pre-show curtain speeches, chatterers don't even restrict their conversations to only those actually in the room. During a recent matinee at a small Dallas theater, the beepity-boop of a cell phone went off during the first act. Its owner dug into his jacket pocket, snapped open the phone and said, loudly enough for half the house to hear, " a, not really..." Everybody's a critic.

It's one thing to put up with people bleating at the screen during a movie. It's quite another when live actors can hear rude interruptions erupting from the peanut gallery. One of the sweetest gotcha moments of the theater season thus far occurred during Kitchen Dog's production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. When a cell phone went off one night during one of Hedwig's more emotional monologues, actor Joey Steakley stopped the show, bounded into the audience, found the offending party, grabbed her still ringing phone, answered it in character as Hedwig and berated the caller for effing up the act. The audience roared its approval.

For theater lovers who simply can't keep their lips from flapping when the house lights go down, there are a few places where it's perfectly OK to yak away during the show. At the melodramas staged at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre the audience is encouraged to boo and hiss the onstage villains and to throw popcorn at the actors. And at children's theater productions, characters often speak directly to the folks in the crowd and include them in back-and-forth conversations throughout the play.

One of the best examples of how to involve a restless audience in the action is Theatre Britain's delightful and imaginative production of The Frog Prince, running for a few more performances at Trinity River Arts Center. In this one everyone gets a chance to be heard. Done as a traditional British "panto," a broad style of children's comedy performed at holiday time, the show opens with a narrator named Kermit (James Hoult) welcoming all the "ladles and gentlespoons" and giving everyone permission to speak up and sing out as the play unfolds.

Jacque Mellor's script is based on the old fairy tale about the handsome prince (Jerrika D. Hinton) cursed to live as a frog until a pretty princess (Shellie Lynch) agrees to let him eat from her plate, drink from her cup and sleep on her pillow. In an enchanted wood haunted by a ghost (F. Scott Scripps), the princess meets the frog, who sings songs backed up by a doo-wop chorus (Hoult, Scripps, Billie Bryant, Clayton Farris). She also encounters an elf named Elfvis (Farris), who prances about with pointy ears, pointy shoes and a cape. "Are you a fairy?" the princess asks the elf. "Don't get personal," he snaps.

With enough mildly ribald jokes to keep parents amused, The Frog Prince is a sprightly combination of children's theater and English music-hall silliness. Halfway through the show, just about the time the kiddies get squirmy, the audience is goosed to its feet to compete in a sing-along of "Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag." Kids are invited onstage to direct the music. Long about the 10th time around, everyone really does smile, smile, smile at the goofiness of it all. After the 90-minute show, the characters stay in costume to greet everyone in the lobby for photos and autographs. It's good interactive theater and a ribbeting experience all around.

Some Don Rickles-style insults shouted at the actors could only help Arsenic and Old Lace, now onstage at Theatre Three. This old warhorse needs to be put out of its misery once and for all. A staple of high school drama clubs and all-volunteer community playhouses, Joseph Kesselring's ancient comedy about poison-happy old ladies takes forever to lay out its exposition and an eternity to wrap up. Why any professional theater would schedule this play smack in the middle of a subscription series...oh, wait, this is Theatre Three, home of the blue-hair special. This theater started its season with Agatha Christie, so there's no mystery for whom they are performing this hoary work.

With its references to "Mr. Hitler," Teddy Roosevelt and Judith Anderson, Arsenic and Old Lace creaks with age. When it opened on Broadway in 1941 (heavily rewritten by its producers, Life With Father playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse), the term "serial killers" hadn't been invented yet. The idea of elderly sisters spiking their lonely gentlemen boarders' elderberry wine with strychnine, arsenic and cyanide to put them out of their misery was considered whimsical and eccentric. The best gimmick of that first Broadway production revolved around the mobster nephew, Jonathon, who acts insulted every time anyone says he resembles movie monster actor Boris Karloff. On Broadway, Jonathon was played by Boris Karloff, who, oddly enough, wasn't cast in Frank Capra's 1944 film version starring Cary Grant and Josephine Hull. In that one, Boris Karloff was played by Raymond Massey.

On its surface, Arsenic and Old Lace is a farce full of slamming doors, mistaken identities and misplaced corpses. Really it's a send-up of theater itself, a play about how bad plays get written and how such plays are built on flimsy characters and illogical plot devices. The male lead, Mortimer Brewster, is a hapless New York drama critic, a position he considers a comedown from his former assignment on the real estate beat. He's just biding his time reviewing plays because, he says, "the theater won't last much longer." At the end of Arsenic, Mortimer is held hostage by a cop whose real dream is to be a playwright. His work just needs a little punching up.

As does the Theatre Three production. Director Kyle McClaran, known to have a heavy hand with light comedy, weighs this one down with weak casting, cluttered staging and an intrusive big-band soundtrack that makes the Brewster sisters' brownstone sound like it's next door to Roseland. Instead of an antic energy, this Arsenic is as lifeless as the corpses under the window seat. It's never funny, no matter how many spit takes and double takes McClaran makes his actors do.

As the wacky Brewster sisters, Sally Cole and Ouida White are tiny and flighty, but Cole is repeating many of the same moves she did in the Christie play The Hollow earlier this season. As Mortimer, Jim Sullivan is too old to be an ingenue and not funny where funny is needed. His comic timing is a full time zone off from the other actors. Dane Hoffman plays the mentally challenged Teddy Brewster as a cross between Tweety Bird and the Great Gildersleeve (now there's a relic of a reference). Terry Dobson, as the supposedly menacing Jonathon, is about as scary as your maiden aunt. Amy Anders Corcoran, in the role of Mortimer's fiancee Elaine, speaks in a high falsetto squeak. Many of the actors' voices sounded fried on opening night.

Combining the play's three acts into two means the first half is now an overlong 80 minutes. Too much of the last half of the play takes place on a nearly dark stage. As the bodies pile up and the plot thins, it seems the thing will never end. Comedy sure took a long time in the olden days. We want our laughs quicker now. It requires every ounce of self-control to keep from yelling at the stage. Drink the poison, you hockey pucks! Let's get this over with and all go home!