Chicago Theater Review: THE BLOND, THE BRUNETTE, AND THE VENGEFUL REDHEAD (Writers’ Theater in Glencoe)

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by Dan Zeff on June 1, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


Like most one-actor plays, the new show at Writers Theatre is more satisfying as a performing showcase than as a drama. The play carries the tantalizing title of The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead, identifying three of the seven characters impersonated by an exceptionally versatile actress named Deborah Staples. The play was written by Australian dramatist Robert Hewett and worked its way from its 2004 premiere in Australia through Europe to Canada and now to regional theaters in the United States, including the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre version, also directed by Joseph Hanreddy.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful RedheadHewett’s play consists of seven characters who deliver monologues directly to the audience. The story centers on a sudden and horrific act of violence that takes place in the food court in a suburban shopping mall, an act that sends shock waves through the lives of all the characters.

The first monologue belongs to Rhonda Russell, a middle-aged suburban wife and mother whose life is turned upside down when her husband, Graham, announces over the phone that he is moving out. Graham has found another woman, the blonde of the title (Rhonda is the redhead). Goaded by her busybody neighbor Lynette (the brunette), Rhonda confronts the woman she thinks is her rival. The Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redheadencounter at the mall results in a violent, if perhaps unintended death.

The facts in the narrative are not in dispute. The interest comes from the various points of view expressed by the different characters in the aftermath of the violent act. Those characters include the three women of the title, a four-year old boy, an English lesbian physician, Rhonda’s husband, and an elderly lady.

Staples shifts from character to character on stage, changing makeup, wigs, and costumes while the audience looks on. The character-changing interludes, supplemented by recorded musical, are fascinating glimpses into theatrical artifice. For the most part, Staples is so sure in her command of the physical, vocal, and emotional details of her characters that once her conversion is completed, the viewer immediately is absorbed in the monologue.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful RedheadUnfortunately, not all the characters come off with equal success, through no fault of the performer. Could any mature woman convincingly portray a four-year old boy playing with his toys on the floor and crying for his mommy?  And it’s asking too much for any actress to credibly portray a male character like Graham Russell. Staples does what she can but physically she doesn’t convince the viewers they are observing anything more than a woman impersonating a most unsympathetic man.

Some of Hewett’s writing is moving and dramatic and some of it wobbles. Graham is such a sleaze ball that it’s difficult to accept that even an accepting woman like Rhonda could put up with him for more than 17 years of marriage, much less dote on him. And the husband is portrayed as a beer-swilling punk. We are told that Graham is actually a moderately successful middle-class white-collar worker but he looks and sounds like he should be pumping gas for a living.

Rhonda ends the play with a triumph-of-the-human-spirit monologue I found confusing and unconvincing. By this time some of the holes in the writing were weighing on my enjoyment of the evening. Rhonda’s suddenly berserk behavior at the food court doesn’t jibe with her otherwise placid and plodding character. Lynette turns from a nosy and meddling neighbor into a full-fledged villain, at least in the eyes of other observers. We only see her once, early in the play where we learn of her role as instigator of the violence in the food court. Yet how was she to know that Rhonda would go crazy at the sight of the supposed home wrecker?

The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with an intermission, about 30 minutes too long. The monologue delivered by the blonde (recited in a thick Russian accent) doesn’t amount to much and the little boy’s speech also could be profitably eliminated. It exists as a heart-tugger but I felt a little embarrassed watching Staples on her hands and knees as a little boy. The monologue involving the elderly lady allows Staples to further extend her acting range but the character is tiresome. I’ll concede that old age can be a shipwreck without hearing about it for 20 petulant and bathos-drenched minutes.

The production fits snugly in the intimate Writers Theatre space at the rear of a bookstore in downtown Glencoe. The stage is bare except for a few props. A series of small closets upstage contain the assorted wardrobe accouterments that enable Staples to shift characters so fluidly. Linda Buchanan designed the set, Keith Parham the effective lighting, Martha Hally the multiple costumes, and Barry Funderberg’s sound, ranging from rap music and country to Fats Waller.

One leaves the Writers Theatre with nothing but admiration for Deborah Staples. Her acting skills and sheer stamina are wondrous. As a play, The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead has its difficulties, but Staples’s heroic performance is reason enough to see this production.

The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead
Writers Theatre
Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols Theatre
325 Tudor Court in Glencoe
ends on July 29, 2012
for tickets, call 847.242.6000 or visit Writers Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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