Farce mixes some facts, much fiction

A popular myth claims that if typewriters were supplied to a room full of monkeys, they eventually would create much of the world’s great literature. Fact or fiction, this is somewhat the premise of the South Bend Civic Theatre season opener, “Moonlight and Magnolias,” in which playwright Ron Hutchinson credits the film version of “Gone with the Wind” to  producer David O. Selznick  locking himself, playwright/reporter Ben Hecht and director Victor Fleming in his office for five days and emerging with the screenplay  for Margaret Mitchell’s masterpiece.

Moonlight and Magnolias at the South Bend Civic TheatreThere are several historical facts to support such a premise. Fact: Three weeks into production, Selznick fired original director George Cukor (for a reported incident with Clark Gable in the MGM men’s room) and pulled Fleming off “The Wizard of Oz” to take over the Civil War epic. Fact: Hecht was the last of several dozen writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald to try their hand at turning the book into a film. Not a fact: That the trio spent five days sequestered on a diet of peanuts and bananas (Selznick’s idea of  “brain food”) or that Hecht tried to introduce dialogue supporting the emancipation of  the slaves, not really a stretch as the setting is 1939 and Hecht, a Jew, equates Southern slavery with Hitler. Add to this the idea that Hecht  had never read “Gone with the Wind” and therefore must have all the scenes enacted for him by Selznick and Fleming in order to create the screenplay, and you have the Three Stooges meet the Marx Brothers in a rowdy scenario that gets louder and more outrageous as the mini incarceration wears on. A good script can make the requisite mayhem a lot more palatable.  Unfortunately, this script goes in a very short while from shout to scream to how-long-does-this-have-to-go-on?  To imagine three of the film world’s giants hitting each other in rhythm to depict Scarlett’s slap of  Prissy or Fleming writhing on the floor to depict Melanie’s labor or his mincing falsetto as Prissy is, for this reviewer, a bit too much to take. After the frequent dire predictions including “You’ll never get a movie out of it (the book),” “I know a turkey when I see it” and “No Civil War movie ever made a dime” and Hecht’s insistence that  viewers would want to know that happened to Scarlett and Rhett so “the ending doesn’t work” (luckily Selznick held fast to the book), the two-hour rampage (plus intermission) seems almost as long as the movie itself. Played against David Chudzynski’s elegantly art deco set, the increasingly frantic protagonists are Scot Shepley as Selznick, Mark Allen Carter as Hecht, Mark Moriarty as Fleming and Lorri Wright as Miss Poppenghul, Selznick’s long-suffering secretary. All ramp up the tempo vocally and physically as the deadline approaches (Hecht’s contract is up in five days), Fleming struggles to peel the last banana and the floor fills with more and more discarded script pages. The director is Jim Geisel, whose last SBCT effort was the elegant and excellent “Rashomon.” In all fairness, the majority of the opening night audience found the slapstick proceedings funny. But to paraphrase Rhett Butler, “Frankly, my dear, I didn’t give a damn.”

“MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS” plays Wednesday through Sunday in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 234-1112 from noon to 6 p.m. weekdays or online at www.sbct.org.

ECT Spins Christie "Spider Web"

The blackmailing drug dealer is definitely dead and it’s no secret who struck the mortal blow. Or is it? That’s the puzzle posed by the prolific mistress of mystery Agatha Christie in her murderous comedy “Spider’s Web,” which began a two weekend run Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House.

Elkhart Civic Theatre production of Agatha Christie's Spider WebIn the time honored Christie tradition, nothing is at it seems to be and nothing is really revealed until the final curtain is about to fall. Also in the Christie tradition are mountains of dialogue which, in the wrong hands (and mouths) could be as deadly as the crime itself. Add to that the two and one half hour running time (plus intermission) and you have a cure for insomnia waiting to happen. But there are no snoozes scheduled here. Director Dave Dufour, Elkhart Civic Theatre’s Christie  specialist, has assembled a cast  that manages to keep everyone on their toes, both off stage and on. He also has perfected the art of inserting periodic visuals that wink at the audience and keep viewers wide-eyed until the real culprit is revealed. In this he is aided and abetted by an ensemble that, for the most part, knows just what to do with Christie’s sometimes daunting speeches and creates slyly unique characters, each of whom appears to have something to hide. These are British peer Sir Rowland Delahaye (David Robey), Hugo Birch (James Bain), his Scottish sidekick in wine-tasting, golf and bridge, and Jeremy Warrender (Ricky Fields), the youngest member of their gaming trio. All are gathered at Copplestone Court, a country estate rented by Henry Hallsham-Brown (John Hutchings), a diplomat in the Foreign Office, with his younger second wife, Clarissa (Annette Dilworth Kaczsnowski),  whose favorite game is “supposing,” and his teen-age daughter Pippa (Carly Swendsen), who has secrets of her own. Enter Oliver Costello (Carl Weisinger), the husband of Pippa’s mother and a nefarious sort whose appearance is surveyed with suspicion by the butler Elgin (Anthony Venable) and whose exit is encouraged by Mildred Peak (Kellie Kelleher), the rough-and-ready gardener.  The last two rightly earn many of the evening’s laughs, while the “there but not there” award definitely goes to Weisinger. The players having been gathered, all that remains is for one to be dispatched in a murderous fashion after which Inspector Lord (David Smith) and Constable Jones (Julia Herrli Castello) arrive on the scene to unravel the deadly web. As in all Christie mysteries, they must wade through a seemingly endless number of red herrings in search of the truth. Each of the actors delivers a consistent character in keeping with the demands of his or her role and sustain them throughout, even handling the required accents — frequently a fatal stumbling  block — and allowing the audience to follow the convoluted chain of events and evidence up to the finale. Secret drawers, hidden rooms, invisible messages and political intrigue all combine to keep the detectives (and the audience) off balance until, as in all Christie novels and plays, an extensive explanation is delivered. Special applause must go to Kaczanowski whose character is front and center for most of the action and much of the dialogue. She meets these daunting demands delightfully, with a charm and sparkle without which “Spider’s Web” could be deadly. Once again, set designer John Shoup has created an elegant backdrop for the deadly doings, while Dufour and assistant director Randy  Zonker are responsible for the moody and enjoyably “mellerdramatic” lighting effects.

“SPIDER’S WEB” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House . Tickets are $13 for adults and $11 for students and senior citizens. Call 848-4116  between 1 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays.