The Column Online



by Monk Ferris

ONSTAGE in Bedford

Directed by Joe Chapa
Assistant Director – Jordan Cox
Stage Manager – Neil Farrell
Assistant Stage Manager – Maria Pope
Costume Designer – Connie George
Set Designer – TJ Firneno
Sound Designer – Kevin Brazil
Lighting Designer – Michael B. Winters
Set Construction – Jim Scroggins, Liz Conly, Michael B. Winters, TJ Firneno, and Don Wilcox
Light and Sound Board Op – Kevil Brazil

Araceli Radillo – Marsha
Nikki Singer – Bianca
Elizabeth Conly – Persis
Travis J. Fant – Tobias
Caleb Hall – Virgil
Leslie Walstrom – Lynette
Neil Farrell – Ben

Reviewed Performance: 1/25/2019

Reviewed by Ryan Maffei, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

“‘I Love Lucy’ style antics!”, promises the synopsis provided by Onstage in Bedford, an outfit with a cozy black box space in a more-provincial-than-not corner of Fort Worth and 35 years of chugging along to its name. Their pretensions are summed up by that proudly literal name – OiB doesn’t trouble itself with the usual Third Coast art-capades, “far out” solely in the geographic sense. They aim only to please their modest crowds, and Let’s Murder Marsha, by one of prolific hack Jack Sharkey’s four pseudonyms, is the sort of hyper-conventional item that helps sustain 35 years’ worth of returns. Anyone tacitly acquainted with theatre from school on up has encountered a dumb, assembly-line murder mystery before, and the threshold to pass is not to be embarrassing, which the material is often blithely prone to fighting.

The overriding demographic at LMM’s opening night likely fondly remembers I Love Lucy being on at some point. Yet, notwithstanding writers like Lili Loofbourow’s canny analyses of the classic sitcom’s decidedly unfeminist underpinnings, the pitch that opened this review is a bad sign for any healthy skeptic – betraying an ambition both too obvious and unattainable (Lucille Ball’s talent was gigantic; however, her show holds up) to stand a chance at realization. I was disappointed as well that my initial misinterpretation of the title as Let’s Murder Marsha Onstage wasn’t the case – the production is only a fun meta exercise for the first few seconds, when a cute voiceover announces it as “filmed in front of a live studio audience!”. But the artists at O’Bedford have sailed over the embarrassment threshold.

The play itself is a total trifle, and the plot – a housewife with an inordinate preference for tacky murder mysteries overhears her Wall Street hubby and a femme fatale dead ringer planning a birthday present in furtive language she mistakes for a murder ploy – unfolds exactly as you’d expect it to. There are good jokes, some of them turned great by a given delivery, and corny ones saved from total groaner hood by same. And while I was expecting the choreographed hijinks to hit an apex at the climax, as is tradition, the show gets draggier and more expository in the second half, though both acts are nicely brisk and there’s a thoughtful 15-minute pee break built in. There’s nothing inventive about it, no clever bits worth writing home about, even as the ripped-from-library-books premise has a promise the author didn’t take very far. But it’s a big testament to the company that that never makes you frustrated.

The performances are all a little workmanlike and a little uneasy, except Travis J. Fant, evincing expert exasperation as Marsha’s husband Tobias – his terrific instincts unify the ensemble and keep the action solidly in high gear. But none of the leads are stuck in school, and the least effortful and effective, Neil Farrell’s cop ex machina, aptly recalls the down-to-earth bit players of classic old movies. (He also gets extra credit for being the stage manager.) Caleb Hall cycles through milquetoast tropes as a nervous-nelly neighbor, but he sells most of them, with beautiful energy, and what doesn’t land is usually the trope’s fault. Nikki Singer does an increasingly enjoyable Jane Leeves impression, and her timing is so skillful you don’t care how often her accent slips. Elizabeth Conly and Leslie Walstrom do spirited work despite different diction hang-ups (too much and too little). And the Marsha is very good: the Lucy wails Araceli Radillo is called upon to emit a couple of times are pure contrivance, but her wit is intact from the top, and she made several shrewd, nuanced choices Friday’s crowd insufficiently appreciated.

Still, the disparities in style and technique among the ensemble bespeak the need for a firmer directorial hand – the best thing one can deduce about Joe Chapa’s imprint is that he kept the pace quick and the broadness mostly within reason. The blocking could have been more balletic and fun, packed with little strokes to offset or enhance the writing beyond what’s currently there or what the actors come up with, and the second act needs a shot of mechanical pep. Still, it isn’t vulgar, always possible with a piece like this, and beyond those fleeting wails none of the actors seem to have been forced to debase themselves, another risk in this mode. And Chapa deserves credit for a few of his hiring choices – Connie George’s costumes and TJ Firneno’s set are genuinely spectacular achievements, a joy to look at.

I’m being picky, but part of that is a general disappointment that Let’s Murder Marsha’s aspirations are so ordinary, from the writing to the execution – fluffy farce doesn’t need to be deep or sui generis to be transcendently rendered. The best and most imaginatively constructed pure silliness is also pure poetry. Still, the opening night audience awarded the work displayed with a diverse array of laughs and a 70% standing ovation, and this critic chuckled softly throughout and was compelled into something louder at least three or four times. The set and costumes, and Travis J. Fant’s performance, are almost worth the drive down by themselves, and again, Araceli Radillo’s Marsha is very good. Sometimes ambitions this honestly simple are worth honoring – sometimes putting no bad into the world is victory enough.

Onstage at Bedford
at Bedford Boys Ranch
2819 Forest Ridge Dr., Bedford TX 76021

Runs through February 10th

Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM
Sundays at 3PM

Visit for tickets and further info.