Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The First Belles of Christmas Ringing at Mask & Mirror

Jani VanPelt (Frankie) and Michael Allen (Raynerd). Photo by Al Steward Photography, Tigard

By Tina Arth

Christmas Belles, Mask & Mirror’s offering for the holiday season, is a farce based on the calamitous events surrounding a very bad local Christmas production – and thus, by necessity, is infused with some elements of truly awful stagecraft. It is one of three comedies set in the fictional Fayro, Texas by the prolific writing team of Jones, Hope and Wooten, and centers on the absurd and tacky Futrelle sisters – a fitting sequel to last spring’s Dearly Beloved, with many of the same cast members. Like its predecessor, Christmas Belles needs to be approached in the spirit of unadulterated fun – any attempt to find great art within the script is doomed, and Director Gary Romans (who also directed Dearly Beloved) makes no effort to turn this particular sow’s ear into a silk purse. Silk purses just aren’t that funny.

The three Futrelle sisters are in crisis. Twink (Diana Lo Verso) is temporarily paroled from jail, sentenced for accidentally burning down ½ of a trailer court while trying to destroy her ex-beau’s NASCAR memorabilia. Frankie (Jani VanPelt) looks about 10 months pregnant, carrying unexpected late-life twins due at any moment. Honey Raye (Kari Trickey) is trying to lose her reputation as town slut by directing the annual Christmas program at the Tabernacle of the Lamb Church. Their principal adversaries are Miss Geneva Musgrave (Pat Romans), the overbearing town florist angry at having lost control of a pageant she directed for the past 27 years, and Patsy Price (Virginia Kincaid), the official town snob who disdainfully refers to the Futrelle girls as “the fertile, the flirt, and the felon.” A third unseen but powerful adversary is the food poisoning that has knocked out most of the cast on opening night – we can only imagine the scene that inspires the quote “Now, do any of you know how to shampoo a sheep?” These and a host of subplot crises magically resolve at the end, although I’m not sure that Dub (James Montgomery) ever manages to pass his kidney stone.

The heavily-stuffed VanPelt is remarkably true to the awkward physicality of the extremely pregnant, and injects just the right note of hysteria into her performance. LoVerso shifts seamlessly from wide-eyed innocence to determined escape artist/vandal – her timing and delivery earn lots of laughs. Trickey’s acting captures Honey Raye’s transformation from trash to, well, slightly-less-trashy, but her hair, makeup, and clothing are all a bit too respectable for the part – somebody just needs to tart this girl up a little! Romans’ take on Miss Geneva is superb – she oozes “pushy Southern broad” out of her smug little pores. In Act I, Kincaid’s elitism is believably annoying – but it’s in Act II that she really gets to shine; as she gradually succumbs to the irresistible effects of a powerful painkiller, we see a whole new side of the prim and proper Patsy Price.

Two of the men demand mention, although for very different reasons. While watching a man in agony probably shouldn’t be funny, Montgomery is hilarious as he mirrors his wife’s oncoming labor pains with his frantic kidney stone inspired writhing – and his stoic refusal to pop a pain pill is just plain heartwarming. Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but I was a bit uncomfortable with Michael Allen’s portrayal of Raynerd Chisum, a mentally challenged and much-loved local character. From what I can tell he played the part as written, so my unease is really aimed at the authors, but it just seems like a cheap shot to milk laughs out of poor Raynerd’s intellectual shortcomings. Allen does, however, turn the tables and partially salvage the role with his exceptionally dignified last-minute rendition of the Christmas story.

While Christmas Belles is broken into two acts, it’s really structured more like a sitcom, with a series of blackouts punctuated by lots of one-liners, clever bits of over-the-top Southern slang, and broad physical comedy. It’s undemanding, a whole lot of fun in the spirit of the ugly Christmas sweater, and it’s a great way to usher in the lighter side of the holiday season!

Christmas Belles runs through November 22nd at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, with shows at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays.

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