You might have trouble keeping track of all the bold statements of social commentary contained in the short 60-minute comedy "Study in Grease Paint," the latest production from the fringe theater company Yellow House.
So, as a public service, I offer the following recap of these statements so you won't have to waste even an hour of your life watching this underdeveloped play by VCU graduate Matthew Shifflett.
Here goes: Politicians are bad. Industrialists are bad. The police are inept. Rich people are sad but also bad. Evangelical religious people are bad. And worst of all are those pretentious artistic people who aren't really bad, just kind of dumb.
These messages are delivered with the subtlety of a poke in the eye in this awkward, cartoonish production presided over by director Beth Von Kelsch. Granted, some of this broadness is purposeful, as exemplified by the silent-movie title cards that set the scenes and the calliope music that drones on throughout the show. Still, Von Kelsch has shown this way-too-obvious material more respect than it deserves and employs a cast that cannot consistently eke out laughs from this overworked ground.
While the play tries for audacity in its portrayal of the rich and powerful, its most blasphemous move is to purloin the character of Charlie Chaplin's Tramp for its own misguided use. As the opening curtain rises, we see a tramp played by Danny Wikowsky sleeping in an alley. After he wakes and finds a beat-up bowler hat in a trash can (isn't he precious!), he proceeds to wander through skit after skit, wordlessly witnessing the blatant injustices of life.
A fat-cat factory owner (Julie Suessle) literally pops the dreams of his union workers. A huckster politician (Chris Yule) promises to rid the world of poverty, causing it to multiply instead. A vehement preacher (Beaurigard Rue Marie) urges his followers to walk a tightrope as an act of faith, his rhetoric only getting more strident with each sickening thud.
Shifflett's play does offer an occasional glimpse of brilliance. The Rich Man's rant, in which he mistakenly reveals the emptiness of his opulent life, is often funny and is delivered with manic vehemence by Chris Yule. When a character named "Sampo" (Amy Barrett) announces herself by saying "I'm a blatant stereotype," her theatrical self-awareness is hilarious. But clever bits like these are too easily lost in the heavy-handed, black-white sensibility of the play.
While there is some talent in this cast, the actors have a hard time finding more than one opportunity to shine. Daniel Bridgforth raises pretension to new levels with his portrayal of a haughty Brit whose art is his life. But the actor's take on a crooning political organizer falls as flat as his voice. Wikowsky has a certain blank charm as the tramp, but he doesn't really have the physical-comedy chops for his role. The only exception here is Barrett who embodies a variety of characters with consistent charisma.
Yellow House seemed to be reaching new levels of sophistication with the spring production, "Heads." But this latest effort shows that they need to go back to the books to find a "Study" more worthy of their attention.
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