By Kent Mancuso
The winter explosion of superb community theater continues. Last week I reported on “I Hate Hamlet” at Astoria Performing Arts Center and “Crimes of the Heart” at Parkside Players, both extremely well done. I could hardly have expected better theater in Queens — that is, until this past weekend.
I experienced an emotional roller coaster ride that took me from the starry heights of a breathtaking ghost tale to the harrowing depths of a heartbreaking tearjerker, both played at the highest levels of performing art that this borough has to offer.
I am speaking of two great productions that opened this past weekend, “Death Takes a Holiday” at Douglaston Community Theatre and “Steel Magnolias” at Beari productions, two productions that I will find almost impossible to forget — both performed by great casts, some of the best names in Queens local theater, and produced by energetic groups that consistently stretch their talents and resources to the max.
“Death Takes a Holiday” is a majestically poetic play from Italy in the late 1920s. Though billed as a “classic ghost story” and a “tale of the supernatural” by the group’s publicity people, it is a superbly written “comedy” about the meaning of life — and death — as Death himself takes on human form and visits the family and guests of Duke Lamberto, an Italian aristocrat, for a weekend — to find out why mortals fear him and to experience human emotions, in particular, love.
This wonderful production, in the hands of director/actor Richard Weyhausen, combines beautiful musical selections and shadowy lighting along with grand ensemble acting and powerfully moving interactions between Death and each of the characters. From the moment the house lights when down and Death himself whizzes through the audience en route to the Duke’s villa, literally opens the curtains as if to enter the household, and puts the maid under his spell, I knew I was in for something far beyond what most folks think of as “community theater.”
The cast entering from the back of the theater and Death slithering past them taking rather dangerous leaps from the stage almost into the first row were just two examples of the bold effects that kept the audience riveted throughout the evening. Strong interactions punctuated each act — for example, the bold romance between the Duke and the beautiful Alda right in the face of his overanxious wife; the sadly comical sexual banter between Alda and the aging baron; and young Grazia’s near brush with Death in the garden and the family’s terrified reaction were all in just the first 15 minutes.
The most fascinating interaction in the play is Death’s appearance to the Duke, a grand scene for two strong actors, in this case, Richard Weyhausen as Death and Bernard Bosio as the Duke.
Bosio’s Duke was a stunning achievement — a real man’s man who blatantly adores the women around him in view of his wife and yet powerfully defends his family and guests against Death. His near hysterical admission to them of the Prince’s real identity brings Act II to a riveting close.
Jennifer Fantozzi, who was noteworthy in “Rebecca” last November, is the perfect embodiment of Grazia, for whom Death longs with “aching pain.” Her eloquent speaking voice and limpid eyes are filled with innocence and conviction — from her most tender refusal of her fiancé’s advances to her glowing acceptance of Death’s hand into eternity. So beautifully tender was her silent meeting with Death at the end of Act I, marked by a long, poignant stare between them as the curtain closed. What a beautiful moment!
As Alda, the woman of passion who spurns all men, but whom all men adore, is brought to steamy life by Donna Azerad. Azerad tears into this torrid role like a cat, most notably in her bitter refusal of Eric — a scene given deeply felt conviction by Ed Schuldner, using a cripple’s crutch to indicate his emotional disability.
The decaying Baron, who mistakes his sudden rejuvenation as a chance to relive his misspent past, is in the remarkably resourceful hands of Nicholas DeCesare. His newfound vigor and his lust for the Princess, who reminds him of his dead love, are conveyed with great zest. All the more poignant is his final realization that he had been duped and that he is still as old as before — a moment that many of us in the audience could readily understand.
As the “very fit” English girl, Rhoda, who flirts fearfully with Death in Act II, Vera D’Elisa reveals an authentic British accent, statuesque figure, and a most convincing fear of Death. Her seduction scene is the first moment when Death takes on a truly menacing tone, and D’Elisa responds like a whip, alternating between fascination and terror.
With such a large cast, I am amazed at the dexterity with which crowded scenes flowed onto the stage. Scenes were marked by continual movement and stage business that kept the pace going. A most impressive effect was to have the full cast gradually collect on stage throughout the play’s final moments so that as Death leaves, the cast watches his exit most expressively — and is ready for their final bows.
This production is obviously a labor of love by all involved. The production runs for two more weekends, Fridays and Saturdays, Feb. 28, March 1, 7, and 8 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 2, at 2 p.m. Douglaston Community Theatre is located at Zion Episcopal Church, 44th Avenue off Douglaston Parkway, Douglaston. Call 718-482-3332 for reservations.
Over in Middle Village, Beari Productions’ “Steel Magnolias” was almost a kissing cousin to “Death Takes a Holiday” — both plays deal with death and how to face it. This “Magnolias” is as near to perfectly cast as anyone could want. What style these ladies have! What charm! Each one knows how to create a unique character, with her own strengths and signature eccentricities — enough to fill a psychology textbook — and also how to blend their characteristics into the very essence of ensemble acting. Indeed, even on opening night this production could easily have been taped as a visual textbook on the meaning of “ensemble.”
At the head of the cast, as Truvy, the town’s notorious beautician, JeanAnn Kump was a sassy, glib dame to reckon with. Wisecracks and good-natured comments on life and love in her small Louisiana town flowed like water from start to finish, a cover-up for the emptiness she feels being trapped her whole life in her home town and having children and a husband who, she feels, do not appreciate her. And so she meets, with religious regularity, with the other women in her beauty parlor to share their lives and find fulfillment with each other.
In remarkable contrast to the slick Truvy is the gentle Anelle of Debbie Bekefi. A charming performer with great timing, Bekefi was in every way so right as the born again Christian, whose spirituality is actually the anchor of this very spiritual piece. Each scene showed her in a completely different outfit and style, depicting the transitions in her life, ending with a most moving declaration of her simple faith in God and life hereafter, a deeply heartfelt moment that brought tears to my eyes.
Mary Lynch, who is still pile-driven into my memory as the erotic Mrs. Danvers from Theatre á la Carte’s “Rebecca,” runs the emotional gamut as M’Lynn, the devoted mother of a diabetic daughter. Maternal angst oozed from her pores — the repressed agony of a mother who worries over her child every minute of her life. The cataclysmic scene of her bitter response to her devastating tragedy are a tribute to her talent — she used her arms, torso, face, every other means possible, almost in the style of Greek theater, to show her agony.
As the crabby, self-opinionated, self-absorbed Ouiser, Debbie Bendana shines like a diamond in the rough. Her hoarse voice and breezy manner are to the part born. Bonnie Sassower’s Clairee was all style and clean articulation — every blink of the eye and gesture of her arms used to convey her character. She was entrusted with disrupting the heartbreak in the last scene by quick timing and super wisecracking.
Alison Schwab was Shelby, the diabetic daughter determined not to let her illness dictate her life. She began her characterization as a pampered, proper Southern belle, not-so-quietly rebelling against her mother’s attempts to smother her life with well-meaning restrictions. With each scene, her characterization deepened, revealing her heroic mission to have a child even if the attempt may cost her life. Her resolve was so thoroughly communicated that even though she is not on stage in the final scene, her presence was felt by all.
Unlike “Death Takes a Holiday,” “Magnolias” is more focused on life — how to live a full life even in the face of loneliness and tragedy. What a pleasure it is to laugh along with these fine ladies on stage, with their foibles and their battles — and ultimately with their will to survive. You simply cannot miss this great ensemble. There is one weekend left with two more performances on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. Beari Productions is located at Trinity Lutheran Church, corner of Penelope Avenue and Dry Harbor Road, Middle Village. Call 718-736-1216 for reservations.