RIPCORDBy David Lindsay-Abaire
Director – Robin Armstrong
Assistant Director – Logan Frederick
Costume Design - Robin Armstrong
Assistant Costumer – Anna Phillips
Set Design – Clare Floyd DeVries
Props Design – Megan Beddingfield
Lighting Design – John Leach
Sound Design – David H.M. Lambert
Stage Manager – Megan Beddingfield
Assistant Stage Manager – Kyle Montgomery
Lois Sonnier Hart (Abby Binder)
Deborah Brown (Marilyn Dunne)
Mark Quach (Scotty)
Lindsay Hayward (Colleen/ Woman in White)
Jeff Burleson (Derek/ Zombie Butler/ Masked Man)
Clint Gilbert (Benjamin/ Lewis/ Clown)
Reviewed Performance: 8/19/2017
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Marilyn and Abby are like aged titans, the Golden Girls, trying to carve out a respectable living space in their shared room at the retirement home. Their desires are clear. One wants the room to herself. The other wants the bed by the window. And this clash erupts into a titanic war that puts the home into turmoil – and the audience into the ‘aisles.’
Ripcord by David Lindsay-Abaire is currently running at Circle Theatre in Sundance Square. He is most known for his Pulitzer-winning Rabbit Holes, but he also wrote the book for Shrek The Musical and screenplays for Robots, Poltergeist and Oz the Great and Powerful. He knows how to turn a phrase into a message in the midst of chaos and hilarity.
Ripcord is rip-roaring funny right out of the gate and never lets up. This cast only had to commit to the story and their characters and let the text work its magic. However knowing how to deliver lines and milk that laughter takes skill and great care and that’s where Director Robin Armstrong comes in. She really brought this ensemble and her production team together to create magical moments, whether it was through production design or cast direction.
Clare Floyd DeVries’ set was sparse, a couple of beds and decorator tables and a rocking chair. Circle’s stage provides a challenge to designers because of support posts and placement of audience seating on three sides, so a section of audience may not see all the set in the same way. She handled this well by providing stage elements for each section so that each section had a window on the stage others didn’t see as well. Some of these elements were props added by Stage Manager, Megan Beddingfield. Despite the sparse stage, the props and decorations gave the room a homey feeling.
The brightly-lit stage also had to turn into a dark haunted house with a bit of magic by lighting designer John Leach, as well as a park, an airplane, the sky and a meadow. By turning from the bright retirement home to dimly-lit, colored spots and splashes, we were transported into a comic nightmare. With bright projections, the stage easily transformed into outdoors or a city park without moving furniture.
The back wall of the stage looked like two big sheets of lattice-work fabric, maybe quilts. These were actually screens for projected photo slideshows. The photos provided material background images related to the story and additional atmospheric and set elements. I’m going to guess Sound Designer David H.M. Lambert had a lot to do with that, though there’s no program credit for it. However the slide show was pretty magical. Remember When Harry Met Sally? One of the charming things about that movie was the interviews with old couples talking about their real relationships. That was the feeling I got, though the photos were of older folks doing outrageous things. They were touching and funny on their own and really added meaning to the story.
Lambert also found perfect songs clips to add to the sentiment in the story, plus a number of well-designed sound effects, such as a chain-saw or prop airplane engine. You’ll have to see the show to learn how those had anything to do with two elder ladies in a retirement home, but you’ll be glad you did. Pre-show opened the house with a collage of Judy Collins, almost a sing-along for some of us. There weren’t any real scene changes, but we frequently got little punctuation marks of eclectic songs after scenes that became a welcome transition that added a bit of meaning or a button to each scene.
Costume Design by Robin Armstrong and her Assistant Costumer, Anna Phillips, covered a wide range of styles. In the home, fairly modern dress for the two ladies were offset by the scrubs of the orderly. The costumes went wild in the haunted house and the contraptions in the airplane, and outside, were inspired.
Abby Binder has lived in the retirement home for some time, not entirely of her choosing. She has a habit of running off anyone who tries to room with her. Lois Sonnier Hart played the hermit-like codger with all the passive aggression she could muster. Abby is the kind of old lady you can come to dislike and Hart gave her that edgy, hateful wit that comes with the type. But Abby is complex. There’s more under the surface and Hart carefully allowed this to simmer beneath Abby’s hard exterior, revealing bits of it in private moments. Abby’s good at running off roomies and usually requires very little effort, until she meets Marilyn. With Marilyn, the obstacles are bigger. I loved the way Hart escalated her efforts as she met each failure. Her goal was clear but we always had to guess at, and were usually surprised by, the actions she took to change tactics. In text and in acting, Hart showed us a lesson in using objectives. The stakes kept rising throughout the show and the comedy just got funnier with each failure.
Marilyn Dunne is an effervescent, always positive, talkative sort who never sees the bad in anyone or any situation. Her goal in life is to brighten the world for everyone. She loves to talk. This is a roomie who drives Abby nuts! Deborah Brown played Marilyn full of the Pollyanna gratitude and innocence recognize for this character. Marilyn quickly gets under Abby’s skin. But Marilyn is also complex and underneath the sweet old lady exterior, there’s a tiger ready to fight for her territory and obstinacy to meet Abby’s persistence. Brown massaged Marilyn into a powerful adversary who could propose a life and death wager and then push it to limits Abby couldn’t imagine. Either Marilyn leaves the room or she gets Abby’s bed by the window. Winner takes all in a no-holds barred war.
And at that point, the gloves came off and Hart and Brown gave a masterful performance of thrust and parry innuendo and dirty tricks that showed old wives at their most extreme.
Scotty had to clean up after these battles. The home’s nurse orderly, Mark Quach played Scotty as a mediator-wannabe, trying to be the good natured bridge between the two titans, but most often getting caught off-guard by the severity of their pranks. Quach played Scotty on a fence between amusement and frustration. Scotty is also frequently a target of Abby, but never gets angry with her. He’s that even-keeled medical professional in the room. Scotty is a constant comic foil adding moments of levity in the tense situations, and Quach played this without blunting the meaning of those moments. In a scene of clarity, Scotty has to clean up after Marilyn leaves and Quach played this scene with a detached sadness that’s very familiar to nurses of elder patients. Its Scotty’s dream of acting that creates the haunted house scene where his in-play acting skills come back to play an important part. I can only guess that the ‘sense-memory’ lessons and persistent dream of Scotty might have personal meaning for Quach.
Marilyn has a family. Her daughter, Colleen, was played by Lindsay Hayward. If you remember how Edith and Gloria were mother and daughter in All In The Family, you see familiarity here. Colleen is gregarious, ballsy, and a lot like mom. Hayward created a daughter who buys-in to the war her mother creates and helps her at every turn. But Hayward is cagy in this. We wonder if Colleen is fully on-board or maybe a little horrified at the extent her mother is willing to reach, but then find out she’s pretty much a full participant. But there’s a whole range of emotions in that roller coaster and Hayward finds them all.
Likewise, her husband, Derek, played by Jeff Burleson, is on-board and helping to the hilt. It’s a little fun for him. Derek tries to keep up and play along, but the girls take the war to levels even he can’t believe. Burleson plays this ambivalence with a skill that makes it edgy, believable and hilarious. His added zombie role is quite funny too.
Finally, Abby has a son. Clint Gilbert played Benjamin who has something to do with why she’s in the home. His arrival reveals the story of Abby and lets us in on her pain. Like Abby, Benjamin wants something and that creates an urgency and pain between the two that stops the storyline and tells us all something about life. Gilbert really underplayed this in a way that allowed this poignant scene to unfold naturally. Mothers and sons have some of the most painful moments in relationships and he allowed his vulnerability to fill the scene. It was Benjamin who let us know Abby.
A show like this is good because of many reasons. It has an edgy quality that pushes comfort boundaries of the audience without being too shocking. We don’t always have to be bludgeoned with horror to learn a lesson or see a good story. It has a cast who is a well-tuned ensemble that plays together and seems to enjoy the work. And there’s a strong vision by the Director that permeates the production.
Ripcord at Circle is a clear winner with a simple, yet hilarious, script from the opening lines, actors who played laughter like an instrument, and a production team that created a perfect setting. Like the truly great sit-coms of old, with every minute filled with laughter and a story that uplifted your spirit, Ripcord is a show you want to see. Go to the Circle and get your battery recharged. It’s rip-roaring good entertainment.
Circle Theatre, 230 West 4th Street. Fort Worth, Texas 76102
Plays through September 16th
Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 pm.; Saturday Matinees at 3:00 pm.
School Night Friday, September 15 at 8pm
Tickets for Thursday evening and Matinees are $25-$33.
Tickets for Friday and Saturday evenings are $30-$38.
School Night Friday, ($5 students - $10 faculty & staff)
For information and tickets, visit http://www.circletheatre.com or call 817-877-3040.