AISLE SAY Seattle, Washington


By Alice Dodd and Jillian Armenante
Directed by Allison Narver
The Empty Space Theatre
At the James T. Manchester Hall
3514 Fremont Pl. N. / (206) 547-7500

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

Parody is a tricky business. At its best, it takes all the familiar conventions of a genre, exaggerates them about ten percent, and produces all that we love about the original with the additional pleasure of showing us how closely the serious borders on the margins of absurdity. When it fails, it's usually because that exaggeration is too great, and it simply becomes ridiculous. "In Flagrante Gothicto", by Alice Dodd and Jillian Armenante, gives us both extremes. At times it's a knowing and sly take-off of all those gothic novels that blend into one great romantic wallow on the moors. Too often, however (especially in the second-act) it's more like an especially hideous variety night at the Elk's Lodge, going for comedy so broad it's really just buffoonery.

It starts promisingly enough. Annette Toutonghi is just right as the hapless, nameless, clear-headed but cruelly beset heroine. With her small voice and delicate frame, we know immediately that she will be rudely tossed by Fortune's troubled seas. Alas, she falls instantly in love with a simple brute, but they are torn asunder. Her Father, noble but ever so slightly besmirched by outbursts of Tourette's syndrome, inconveniently dies. She travels then to a house of darkness, where even with the friendship of Dora, a kindred spirit, she can barely survive. The evil housekeeper is mean and has unhealthy intentions. The key role of Hamilton, her new master, was solidly, sometimes too emphatically, played by Jim Gall. Hamilton, for whom she feels unfathomable longings, has his own secret hidden beneath the staircase, and when at last it is revealed, that is the beginning of a terrible conflagration with the depths of hell, from which only our heroine can save him. Then there's a happy ending.

All fine, good fun. Allison Narver is a talented director, but this struck me as one of those productions where funny things happened in rehearsal, and too many of them were kept. What I felt the play lacked was a consistent tone, a steady comic voice and inflection. The first-act generally had that, but the second-act gets terribly loose and sloppy. For example, a formal ball quietly transforms into a line-dance, and it's very funny. In the second-act, a sword fight devolves into pro-wrestling moves, and it's obvious and overdone. Likewise, a flashback to a tropical isle (key to the mystery under the staircase) goes totally wrong, starting as an exotic interlude and ending in a preposterous travesty of Bali-Hai, which goes on and on. The tropical seductress Ishtabuy (Anna Henare) has a great costume gag, but it's also overplayed. In general, what is literate and witty about the play is gradually overwhelmed by the ludicrous and campy.

There were certainly good performances. In addition to the lead, Jayne Muirhead was excellent as the cruel headmistress, always maintaining the kind of severity that becomes truly humorous. Bhama Roget brought a wealth of finely tuned comic invention to a number of roles. I also enjoyed Chuck Leggett, as the Father, Headmaster and others, although there were times when he seemed a bit too bombastic. The rest of the ensemble gave solid support and commendable effort. The physical production was very good, with a well-crafted and moody set by Gary Smoot, evocative lighting by Patti West, and beautiful costumes by Heather Shannon Moore. Nathan Anderson created a well-produced and well-integrated sound design.

To be sure, there are plenty of good laughs in this show, and to be honest I think most of the people in the opening night audience enjoyed the play more than I did. But it seems to me the key to satiric comedy, in particular, is control and restraint. "In Flagrante Gothicto" too often went for the outrageous and over-the-top. It's a very fine script, and this is a talented company, but they never quite meet.

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