Richard Ganoung, Molly Rhode. The radio-play approach gave the evening some of its best moments, but also a few problems.
If Saturday night's near-capacity crowd for All About Eve is a reliable indicator, there's definitely an appetite for professional theater in Madison.
All About Eve, a one-night only event in the Overture Center Playhouse, was the debut production of Forward Theater Company. Forward is one of two groups -- the other being The Bricks Theatre -- to emerge following the demise of the Madison Repertory Theatre earlier this year. Both companies include people who had worked for the Rep in either artistic or administrative roles.
While I enjoyed the informality and laid-back vibe of Bricks' launch at the Frequency, it also felt good to be back in Overture's Playhouse again. It would be a shame for this lovely venue to be underutilized due to the Rep's closure.
Some demographic observations: while the crowd at the Frequency skewed younger, the Forward audience seemed more similar those at the Rep. But this, of course, may be due to the choice of material: while All About Eve may be an enduring cultural touchstone (even the Simpsons did an "All About Lisa" episode), how many younger people have actually seen the classic 1950 film starring Bette Davis?
Yet even those who haven't seen the movie about a ruthless young upstart will likely recognize lines like "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night," delivered by aging actress Margo Channing, immortalized in the film version by Bette Davis and played here winningly by Wisconsin actress Colleen Burns.
Forward chose to stage Eve as a radio play, with costumed actors holding their scripts and speaking into three microphones positioned across the stage. Those who missed it at Overture last night can catch it Nov. 22 on Wisconsin Public Radio's "Old Time Radio Drama" program.
The radio-play approach gave the evening some of its best moments, but also a few problems (such as when the microphones blocked the actors' faces, or when it was hard to hear actors because they were facing mics and not the audience).
While the script was adapted by Forward member Jack Forbes Wilson, it's based on the Lux Radio Theater version, rather than the film version (which was itself based on a short story; that's enough cultural recycling to make even the staunchest postmodernist's head spin).
Karen Moeller and Nicholas Harazin served as announcers and also did the period ads, including plenty for Lux detergent. As Moeller exhorted the crowd to "give your clothes that nice-as-new Lux look," she nailed the crisp diction in those vintage ads.
There was also a fun moment when past and present collided. As Moeller and Harazin acknowledged real-life sponsor Michael Best & Friedrich, they read off the law firm's web address, then expressed puzzlement at what this "World Wide Web" might be. While, on one level, it seemed awkward to promote a sponsor in the middle of a live performance, it was also playful and knowing.
In fact, "playful and knowing" sums up Forward's All About Eve, directed by Jennifer Uphoff Gray, quite well. While I enjoyed Burns' Margo Channing, with her dry-as-a-stiff-martini wit, there was also a hint of camp in her performance. It's hard to deliver dialogue like "Infants behave the way I do. They'd get drunk if they knew how" (to paraphrase) utterly straight. Margo's over-the-top nature is what makes her such a memorable character.
Milwaukee-based actress Molly Rhode tackled the role of Eve Harrington, the scheming young woman who insinuated herself into Margo's life with the goal of ultimately supplanting her as a celebrated actress. Rhode ably shifted from (seemingly) nave, fawning helper to crafty conniver.
Gail Brassard's costumes were handsome and faithful to the period. I especially liked announcer Karen Moeller's dress; its nipped waist and full skirt conjured up postwar fashion as inspired by Dior's "New Look."
While All About Eve is a promising start for Forward, I'm eager to see what they'll do with a more conventionally staged play. Up next is the Midwest premiere, Dec. 30, of Christopher Durang's timely satire Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them.