Fabulously Entertaining Blue Leaves Urges Audiences to Cherish Reality

blue1John Guare’s dark, biting, yet somehow sweet family drama The House of Blue Leaves was last produced in RI almost exactly a year ago by Next Generation Theatre. In the March 2014 Motif review (http://motifri.com/capable-cast-seeks-fame-in-house-of-blue-leaves/), there is speculation as to how The Gamm’s version the following year would present the same script with a bigger budget and Equity actors. Interestingly, aside from Patrick Lynch’s splendid set, some more experienced and nuanced performances and a carefully produced but unnecessary video transition, the two productions were rather similar. This is, perhaps, because Guare’s tale of the real American Dream – fame – and the script’s joyous toying with the conventions of audience and performer are embedded and only need a cast and a crowd in order to work. That is, of course, an oversimplification and does no justice to yet another successful and fabulously entertaining offering by The Gamm, featuring some of its beloved core company members and directed by Fred Sullivan, Jr.

blue2Tom Gleadow is a delight as Artie Shaughnessy, the loveable loser and tunesmith who just wants to break into jingle writing and get out of his dead end life as a New York zookeeper. His mentally fragile wife, Bananas (sympathetically rendered by Jeanine Kane) is about to be usurped and tossed aside by Artie’s brass mistress, the ridiculously and wonderfully named Bunny Flingus (Rachel Dulude, seizing an opportunity to turn things up to 11 and chew most of Lynch’s scenery). With Pope Paul VI in town, Bunny wants to drag Artie and his sheet music to the streets and get a papal blessing on the questionably original Shaughnessy tunes. From there, Bunny believes, it’s only a matter of making it to California (after dumping Bananas at the nearest sanatorium) and hooking up with Artie’s boyhood friend, Billy, who is now a leading Hollywood hotshot. It’s all about the fast track to fame, or in some cases, fame’s estranged cousin, notoriety. Guare deftly introduces characters and plot twists that explore every aspect of celebrity and though things get dark, there is a sweetness that pervades, almost as if David Lynch directed an episode of “Laverne and Shirley.”

blue3Other standouts in this cast include Karen Carpenter as a starlet whose fame has been cut short by an on-set accident. While others scramble to become famous, she gracefully (and somewhat desperately) hides her infirmity in order to cling to the fame she still has. Amanda Downing Carney’s carefully formulated costume design is particularly effective in Carpenter’s case, with the drab beige and yellow of the “ordinary” folk answered by Carpenter’s gold sparkles and Marilyn Monroe ultra-blonde. Joan Batting leads a trio of star struck nuns who bolt from the convent and take to the streets in a mad dash to get a glimpse of the pontiff in a direct reference to the prevailing Beatlemania of the play’s 1965 time period. Julia Bartoletti (coming off of a particularly impressive turn in Wilbury’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) fares well here as the young novice who is lured by secular trappings and sees the life everyone else is dying to escape as actually quite glamorous.

blue4Others fare less well, but the ensemble work is a joy to observe, especially in a tumultuous skirmish that involves Artie and Banana’s unstable son (Marc Mancini) who has designs on killing the pope in order to make up for not being a childhood film star. While the punches don’t quite land effectively, the laughs do, even up to the point of devastation that is one of the more well-realized technical effects of the production. By play’s end, there is a certain justice doled out by the grace of Billy Einhorn, only to be perverted once again. Artie’s own sense of entitlement, as cuddly as it may seem, is still the same poisonous strain that pervades America then and now. Our YouTube and Twitter-based infamy culture is only the natural extension of what Guare captured in Blue Leaves (see David Cross’s latest film Hits as a perfect update to the same theme) and the play still stands as a warning to cherish and hold on to reality, not reality TV.

The House of Blue Leaves by John Guare, directed by Fred Sullivan, Jr., through April 5. The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St, Pawtucket; gammtheatre.org; 401.723.4266. Discounts for seniors, students and groups of 10 or more.

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