Friday, July 9, 2010

The Violent Bear It Away

Currently playing at the Copeland Theater at Notre Dame College, Susan Middaugh's Black Widows is a delicious black comedy concerning two widows with a taste for larceny, fraud, and murder. Directed by Barry Feinstein, the drama is the most recent entry in this year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival.
At the center of the play stands the unlikely couple of Vera and Gwen. An embittered refugee from Russia, Vera is the cynical landlady for whom the accumulation of wealth is the only conceivable goal in life. No moral rules apply if you can get away with it; ethical objections to crime are only the sentimental bleat of the world's losers. Against this Nietzschean virago stands the timid Gwen, one of the world's sentimentalists. Her passion to protect stray dogs is matched by her passion to protect stray homeless alcoholics who dot her neighborhood. Having successfully tapped Gwen's streak of greed, the irresistible Vera expertly maneuvers the docile Gwen into escalating acts of minor theft, insurance fraud, and finally murder of the homeless men whose insurance policies they have commandeered for themselves.
The vibrant performances of Ann Mainolfi (Vera) and Babs Dentz (Gwen) are the treasure of the evening. Vera's cynical treatment of humanity and of the hapless Gwen exudes an ecstatic joy as she mows down her victims physically or verbally. The occasional flashbacks to the annihilation of her family at the hand of the Nazis evoke the source of this cynicism. Mainolfi's ability to change from beaming charmer to threatening bully in the space of a second brings the destructive but beguiling character alive. In her haunting character of Gwen, Dentz provides the evening's most moving performance. At first the caricature of the deranged pet-lover, Dentz shows genuine affection for the homeless men the duo is attempting to con. Her anguish over the escalation of crime is powerfully conveyed. Her final confrontation scene with the imprisoned Vera shows Gwen at last freed from the domination of the manipulative Vera and free to enjoy such humane pursuits as dog shelters, waitressing, and just being kind to the down and out.
Complementing the expert performance of the lethal duo is Glenn Vitale's cagey performance as John McArdle, a homeless vet who maintains a proper suspicion of the gifts showered upon him by these two alleged church ladies. In one of the evening's more entertaining twists, McArdle actually begins to recover from what had seemed a fatal addiction to alcohol. His unwelcome longevity causes Vera to mow him down in a trumped-up car accident.
The strength of Barry Feinstein's direction lies in the strong performances and ensemble feel he has elicited from his talented cast. The piece's dark humor and sincere sentiment about human suffering are kept in good balance. Unfortunately, at the opening night performance at least, the technical glitches indicated that the production was not quite ready. The many lighting miscues, confused movements, and flubbed lines broke the flow of the performance. The set gave the play a rather inert look, but the recorded original score (trumpet by Joseph Conway and guitar by Charlie Sigler) used the instruments cherished by the two homeless characters and gently recalled their ambitions to become jazz musicians in earlier times---another humane touch in a dark comedy with a soul.

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