The program for The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead, now at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, reveals little, only a cast of one, the truly multitalented Deborah Staples, supported by a production staff of nearly 20. Theatergoers might guess that with three title characters of varying hair color and one player, wigs will figure into the show, and indeed they do (wigs designed by Lara Dalbey). What the audience might not anticipate is that these transformations will take place right before their eyes in the intimate Books on Vernon space or that there will be so many of them — representing seven distinct characters — with Staples morphing convincingly into females and males aged four to ninety-something. Simply witnessing those extraordinary metamorphoses is enough to keep the audience engaged for the running time of just over two hours.
Staples is not the only reason to buy a ticket. Indeed, everything, with one exception — but it’s a biggie — is spot-on. “Nothing is what it seems,” says Staples as Tanya Moisevitch, the Russian blonde of the title, and that pronouncement is certainly true of the set, designed by Linda Buchanan. At first there appears to be no set, just a backdrop of two black walls joined at the corner. Wrong. After Staples launches the play as Rhonda Russell, the titular redhead, she opens one of several panels in the backdrop. What is revealed is not simply a makeshift dressing area that Staples uses to transform herself into lesbian physician Alex Doucette (short brownish wig but not the brunette of the title) but also a whole, perfectly executed world-in-a-closet, in this case a medical office (properties by Nick Heggestad).
Each of Buchanan’s suggestive mini-tableaux is better than the last, and one of the pleasures of the production is anticipating what door will open next and what will be revealed. The visuals get a boost from evocative music clips (sound design by Barry G. Funderburg) that chime in as the doors open, as if releasing the lid of a music box. Mood lighting by Keith Parham reinforces the shifting scenes.
Director Joseph Hanreddy orchestrates all of this with a deft hand. Like Staples, Hanreddy is a veteran of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, where the two collaborated on a production of The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead in 2008. That experience shows in the ways Staples changes herself — not only her hair and costumes (by Martha Hally) but the pitch of her voice and accent of her speech and, especially, her bearing. Watching Staples shift from splayed-legged Graham Russell, husband of the redhead, to the dowager-humped Joan Carlisle is one of the pleasures of the show. As skanky Lynette Anderson, the brunette neighbor and frenemy of Rhonda, Staples appears to grow tall and leggy. When Staples assumes the identity of four-and-a-half-year-old Matthew McKinnon, she somehow lops a few feet off her height.
But here’s the pity. All that talent is funneled into bringing to life a series of characters who end up being little more than stereotypes. The blame here goes to Australian playwright Robert Hewett. Hewett’s idea is to reveal plot not through the interactions of characters — impossible in a one-person play — but through the characters’ shifting points of view, something like reading novels with unreliable narrators, where truths emerge from discrepancies in the characters’ accounts. It’s not a bad conceit — it works well in a film like Rashomon — but the audience needs a subtler puzzle to solve to make this work. The characters in Hewett’s monodrama are mostly one-dimensional, sometimes even not true to their own stereotype: nothing in housewife Rhonda’s polished demeanor leads us to expect her husband to be the beer-chugging lowlife that he is. The only revelation that’s genuinely interesting comes from Tanya, whose cheap jewelry masks her shark-like entrepreneurship.
The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead
Writers’ Theatre, 664 Vernon Avenue in Glencoe
May 22 – July 29, 2012
Tickets $45 – $65 at box office (376 Park Ave., Glencoe); 847-242-600; or www.writerstheatre.org.
Photos: Michael Brosilow