War and Blackface

In a four-night stretch last week, this lowly theater scribe experienced war, murder, bloodshed, carnage, mayhem and an opera singer in black face. On Friday, it was the Hunger Artists' staging of BAFO, Tom Strelich's incisive hostage drama that, among many themes, draws a parallel between big wars and small men with huge fears. On Sunday, it was Stages' Henry V, which explores nationalism, heroism and the glory of bloody battlefields. On Monday, it was a staged reading of Aristophanes' anti-war comedy Lysistrataproduced by the Rude Guerrilla Theater Co., the Garage Theatre Co. and the loud*R*mouth Theater Co.

In the midst of those stimulating, current plays, there was also Ken Ludwig's farce Lend Me a Tenor, a play that isn't concerned with anything.

You might question the Grove Theater Center's decision to produce such frothy fare in such tumultuous times. But in a four-night period when war and death and killing were on everybody's lips, it was gratifying to check the brain at the door. And even though Kevin Cochran's direction of this physically demanding farce could be tightened, it approaches the intensively demanding style in which true farce is supposed to be staged: as if you're fucking in a house afire.

It's 1934, and a struggling opera company in Cleveland awaits the arrival of the world's most famous tenor, Tito Merelli (Howard Patterson), who is supposed to star in the blackface role of Otello. Overwrought opera director Saunders (David Allen Jones) and his harried henchman Max (Scott Dreier) try to keep the womanizing, boozing Merelli away from skirts and spirits. But when Tito's wife, Maria (Terra Shelman), suddenly dumps him after signs of infidelity, the tenor—in true operatic passion mode—decides to kill himself. In an effort to save the impassioned Italian, Max slips him some sleeping pills. As good farce does, the events get crazier and crazier, with slamming doors; mistaken identities; scantily clad women; mad pursuits; and all other kinds of madcap, zany stuff.

Individually, the actors are strong, with Dreir's Max, Jones' Saunders and Charise Greene's frenetically talented Maggie delivering especially noteworthy performances. Patterson, long one of Orange County's best supporting actors, finally gets a major role. He does a fine job with it, although his Italian accent needs some work. But the production lacks energy. Some of the physical bits aren't as sharp as they should be, the stakes never seem to reach that teetering-on-the-brink-of-disaster apex, and the show's momentum doesn't build to the kind of inexorable snowball frenzy that great farce requires—and that Cochran produced several years ago in Noises Off.

Still, there's enough here to maintain your interest and enough laughs to keep at bay whatever fears or worries await outside the theater. And sometimes that's the best theater you can ask for.

Lend Me a Tenor at the Grove Theater Center, 12842 Main St., Garden Grove, (714) 741-9555. Thurs.-Sat., March 6-8, 8 p.m. $18.50-$22.50.


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