2/8/2020 CALENDAR GIRLS Act 3 Productions
THE NAKED TRUTH
(Bias Alert: I have worked with Act 3 Productions and may do so again someday. I have also worked with actors Ginny Slifcak and Mary Claire Klooster and tend to view their work through approval-tinted glasses.)
Sometimes my experience at a production transcends my carps and quibbles and reservations. I was less-than-impressed with Georgia Ensemble’s 2015 production of this piece, citing awkward Act II expositions and “filler” that made the show outstay its welcome, though I had some praise for the production itself. In Act 3’s staging, many of the choices made by the director, designers, and actors were grating to me and, if I were an objective observer, would be the start of a scornful critical diatribe. But now, for some reason, the script didn’t seem so bloated, the smiles and warm fuzzies came often, and I left the theatre happy for the experience.
Tim Firth's Calendar Girls is a light(ish) comedy based on a charming 2003 British film, which, in turn, was based on a true-life 1999 incident in which a group of plucky middle-age women produced a saucy calendar to raise money to purchase a divan for a Cancer Treatment Center waiting room. I found the 2003 movie to be a pleasant diversion and was hoping for the same here. Despite all the creative mis-steps I saw here, I was indeed charmed and pleasantly diverted.
We are in the meeting space of the Knapely (Yorkshire) Women's Institute, a civic organization specializing in "enlightenment, fun, and friendship." Their meetings tend to be short dry lectures on such topics as tea towels and broccoli, surrounded by hours of "dishing" and imbibing. Or Tai Chi, if they ever learn to do it correctly. When Annie's husband, John, dies of Hodgkin's Lymphoma at a relatively young age, they decide to focus their fund-raising efforts on obtaining a more comfortable couch for the ill-furnished waiting area of the local cancer ward (because, I suppose, the comfort of "those who wait" is just as important as the welfare of "those who are going").
Chris, one of the more "anything for a giggle" members, suggests they produce a calendar in which they pose semi-nude while doing traditional "WI" activities, such as baking or knitting or piano-(um)-ing. One by one, Chris gets support from her friends; an amateur photographer is engaged, and the pictures are produced. Now, all they have to do is get the "blessing" of the WI "Home Office" -- not as easy as it apparently was in real life. And, once the Calendar is produced and becomes a sell-out, the great publicity machine falls on their hapless heads, and heretofore hidden resentments come to the fore.
To give my carps and quibbles only a passing mention, let me just note that the set was high-school theatre bland, the blocking “kick-line” simplistic, accents disparate and generally atrocious (this is YORKSHIRE, not LONDON, and the effect of intermittent stabs at British accents in Yorkshire characters is pretty much the same as if Southern accents were used in shows set in New Jersey or Chicago).
Where this production succeeds is in the ensemble work and the pacing. It should be noted that the 2015 production clocked in at almost three hours (the movie was a mere 108 minutes), this one came in at 2:15, 25 minutes of which were intermission and “hold the curtain.” Okay, some scene endings were clumsy and more languid than I would have preferred, but the scenes themselves whisked by. And the casts’ interactions were compelling and honest. I believed these women were friends, enjoyed each other’s company, and, generally, enjoyed “stirring he pot.”
And, surprisingly, all the Act II monologues by the supporting cast that I found so contrived and unnecessary in 2015 here became an integral part of the plotline, showing us a diverse and story-filled ensemble that meshed nicely. Whereas five years ago the story seemed to be about Chris and Annie, interrupted by their friends, (and, truth to tell, it was staged to focus on those two with the others kept mostly in the background); here it seems like a tapestry in which Chris and Annie share the stage equally with everyone else. It now seems to be about a closely-knit circle of friends who support each other, who care for each other, who enjoy each other’s company, whose stories would lessen the whole if dropped.
And to see this many roles for women beyond their flirting and cheesecake years in one script is a joy in and of itself. That they get to occasionally flirt and “cheesecake” drives home the message that “womanhood” does not end at age thirty. I credit the principals (Mary Claire Kooster as Chris, Ginny Slifcak as Annie, the exquisite Gloria Szokoly as the eldest -- Jessie, whose Act 1 speech about aging is a singularly memorable moment, Rebekah Williams as Ruth, Carlyle McLaughlin as Celia, and Avani Lesane as Cora) for the unexpected success of this show. Kudos also to Paul Spadafora, whose doomed John makes an impact that makes his loss all the more compelling.
So, would this show have been improved by a dialect coach, by a more well-thought out design, (especially a means to take us out of the meeting room for the lyrical finale), by a better eye for stage picture (and strong/weak positioning)? Of course. I hesitate to say, “good enough is good enough,” because it’s such a low bar, and I prefer productions that don’t settle for “good enough.” But, for once, a venue’s intimacy makes “good enough” better than that low bar usually connotes. It’s very easy to feel empathy for these characters, to enjoy their story. And Saturday’s audience seemed to enjoy their company as much as I did,
Carps and quibbles? Of course they matter. But in rare cases, they can be borne and even relegated to “background noise.”
Act 3’s staging of Calendar Girls (may I PLEASE start calling them "Calendar Women?") is a charming and pleasant (if Americanized) slice of Yorkshire life.
-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #Act3Productions #CalendarWOMEN)