The play is filled with well-traveled jokes and inaccurate Southern stereotypes. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Some stereotypes just keep on giving no matter how often they are used. And it doesn't hurt that, outside of Eula Mae, the female characters are played by men in drag. Though the cross-dressing makes no discernable statement about anything in particular, it's certainly funny.
Jennifer Frank is outstanding as Eula Mae. Her tough-girl charm and relaxed manner with the audience set the tone for the entire show. She brings a Bob Newhart-like sanity to the foolishness that swirls around her. Through blank stares and deadpan delivery, she even has moments of considerable vulnerability and insecurity. It's fun to imagine what Frank could do with a similar but better-written role.
Kirk Morton turns in workmanlike performances as Carl Joe and as Eula Mae's mother, Anna Mae. He's funny enough in these largely dispensable parts. But as Sue Sue, the vodka-guzzling beauty pageant coach, Morton conjures up a woman who looks something like Elizabeth Taylor in her chicken-choking days. And I'll have you know, Sue Sue is not the kind of woman who is afraid of chicken bones or pumping the Passion perfume bottle a few too many times at the counter in Dollar General.
Drew Etheridge plays Eva Mae and her beauty contestant daughter, Rita Mae. With castanets, a baton and gecko-inscribed bongo drums, Etheridge boom-booms his way through the talent portion of the beauty competition. He does a brilliant job of summoning the ghosts of countless overwrought amateur performances forgotten by everyone but family and friends. After all, not everyone can be Tammy Wynette.
The playwrights, Frank Blocker and Chuck Richards, have performed in the play for years and their script has an improvisational, back-of-the-envelope feel to it. Despite the undeniable humor, there's almost no genuine conflict between the characters. In the first act, there's only enough interaction to set up a series of monologues that dwell too much in the past. When a character takes a seat on the barstool, it's a sure sign we're about to hear a reminiscence that sucks the energy from the play until the monologue is finished.
The second act is better and includes the best scene in the play. Sue Sue, Eula Mae and Eva Mae take seats in the audience to watch the beauty contest. The physical proximity of these characters to one another finally stirs up some real-time conflict as Sue Sue and Eva Mae nearly come to blows. Director Amy Berlin's illusion works so well that most of the audience look at the empty stage (rather than the actors) and see a beauty contest before them.
"Eula Mae's Beauty Bait and Tackle Shop" is one of those shows that prove that a solid script is not always essential for good theater. Sure, the playwrights could have done more than piece together countless tired clichés and jokes. But in the hands of a talented director and cast, we get to watch colorful characters rip through the scenery with good-natured abandon. Sometimes, that's more than enough to entertain us. S
The Triangle Players' "Eula Mae's Beauty Bait & Tackle" runs through Oct. 5 at Fielden's Cabaret Theater. Tickets cost $12-$14. Call 346-8113.
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