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The Octette Bridge Club

a Comedy/Drama
CATEGORY :
by P. J. Barry

COMPANY : Kudzu Playhouse [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Kudzu Playhouse [WEBSITE]
ID# 3677

SHOWING : March 05, 2010 - April 04, 2010

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

Sentimental comedy/drama. On alternate Friday nights, eight sisters meet to play bridge and gossip. The first act takes place in 1934; the second act ten years later during a Halloween bridg party where each acts out her costume's persona. The emotionally distraught youngest has just gotten out of a sanitarium and knows she must cut the bonds to her smothering family and strike out on her own beginning with her hilarious Salome "belly dance. Audiences will recognize the story as their own--the American family.


CAST & CREW LIST
Director Adriana Warner
Stage Manager Kathy Ellsworth
Crew and Assistant Stage Manager Debby Wachsman
Ann, 6th born Abby Avery
Mr. Foster, Photographer Wes Ball
Lil, 7th born daughter Lorie Dunn
Connie, 4th born daughter Tamyan Sager Gandert
Betsy, 8th born daughter Lynne Jenson
Nora, 3rd born daughter amanda libbey
Alice, 5th born daughter Barbara Hawkins Scott
Martha, 1st born daughter Candy Cain Spahr
Mary, 2nd born Minnie Tee
Click to Submit Cast & Crew Info for this production
REVIEWS

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Sister Act
by Dedalus
Thursday, April 8, 2010
4.0
Let’s turn the calendar back to a bygone era, a time before electronic entertainment, a time when the Family Room was the center of the house, when large families were the expected norm, when cards and gossip provided the rope that bound families together. The Donavan sisters (eight strong) spend every other Friday playing bridge, and keeping the conversation pleasant and superficial (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course).

But life has a way if picking at emotional scabs, of prolonging simple hurts to lifetime grudges, of reminding us that family ties can also gag and strangle.

Act One of P.J. Barry’s “The Octette Bridge Club,” now finishing its run at Kudzu Playhouse, takes us to 1934. The middle-aged sisters are being interviewed for a society page feature, and, in turn, introduce themselves to the photographer and to us. Please note how they all define themselves in terms of their husbands and children. After the photographer leaves, they engage in a little music and celebration, and, one by one, they depart, leaving the youngest, Betsy, alone with the hostess, Ann. Soon, we begin to see a darkness beneath the happy sibling surface we’ve been shown.

Act Two jumps ahead to 1944. Once again, we see a generally pleasant party atmosphere, but time, illness, and the war have taken an obvious toll on the sisters. As the act continues, the battle lines are drawn between those who want to share their pains, and those who insist unpleasantness is best left unsaid.

I truly like the premise of this play, the idea that “leaving unpleasantness unsaid” can magnify its effect, making simple slights the fodder for monumental grudges. I like how the play gives eight actresses meaty roles into which they can sink their no-longer-ingénue teeth. I like how the period details reflect on contemporary problems, and never out-of-fashion family dysfunction.

What I don’t like is the clunkiness of the writing. The clumsy exposition with the photographer, the contrived hugfest that seems to come out of nowhere at the end, the sudden fits of piety, the shallowness of the characters all threaten to undercut the gentle nostalgia and the compelling ideas that inform the piece.

That the production ultimately succeeds is a tribute to the design of the piece with its attention to period detail (sets and costumes both), to the fast-paced direction by Adriana Bosna Warner, and, especially, to the wonderful turns by all eight talented actresses. These actresses bring these thinly-sketched women to full life. Candy Cain Spahr gives the eldest, Martha, a coldness that made me cringe. Spinster sister Mary is played by Mary Tee with a nice sparkle that is sorely missed by her Act Two stroke-induced debility. Lorie Dunn shines as Lil, who wants to make a song out of every situation. Lynne Jenson gives youngest Betsy a full spectrum of neuroses that come to fruition in her Act Two face-to-face with Martha. The others (Tam Sager Gandert, Amanda Libbey, Barbara Hawkins-Scott, and Abby Avery) all have their moments to shine, all give us fully-crafted characters who not only seem to be a product of their times, but also seem as if they come to us with decades of shared history behind them.

This play ran on Broadway in 1984 for a short (less than a month) run that featured some of the finest “mature” actresses of the time (Nancy Marchand, Lois de Banzie, Anne Pitoniak, Elizabeth Franz, and the timeless Peggy Cass, to name just five). I’m tempted to say that if this roster can’t bring the piece to life well enough for it to last longer than a month, what hope does a group of sometimes-cast-off-age local actresses have? And, I was sorry to hear that this production has been criminally under-attended.

If I were forced to discuss why this piece succeeds here, I would say that the intimacy of the Kudzu venue gives an edge. These actresses are able to create a connection with the audience that too often is lost in larger venues. It may also be the work Ms. Warner has done with her actresses, the connections we see between them as their stories unfold. Whatever the reason, I’m not sorry I missed the New York production, but I AM glad, I saw it here. It’s a “Sister Act” that bids a winning hand.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

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8 x 0 = 0
by playgoer
Sunday, April 4, 2010
3.0
P.J. Barry's "The Octette Bridge Club" is not a particularly appealing play. It concerns a group of eight Irish-Catholic sisters in Rhode Island in the 1930's and 1940's who play bridge together every other Friday night. Late in the play, one of the sisters states "we never are serious with one another" (or words to that effect). The problem with the play is that it is too serious, getting progressively bleaker and blacker and more tense as it goes on. This has the unfortunate effect of making the central character of Betsy seem like a whining killjoy intent on erasing all hints of humor.

The play begins with the creaky exposition method of having a photographer from the Providence Journal click a few pictures of the sisters and have them list their birth order, personal details (husband, children), and the origin of the Octette Bridge Club. This is a big lump of pretty uninteresting information that burdens the show from the start. We have eight sisters, ranging in age from their late 30's on up, that we have to keep straight. The only two we learn much about are the bossy oldest, Martha, and the mentally troubled youngest, Betsy. The hints of Betsy's troubles are subtle but obvious in act one, but take over the show in act two.

I need to state from the outset that I didn't believe these women were sisters, and I certainly didn't hear a hint of Rhode Island accents in their voices. The chronology of the sisters' birth order didn't always seem to track the ages of the actresses playing them either. From an audience viewpoint, of course, the distinctions between sisters would be harder to keep track of if they all bore strong physical resemblances to one another. The differences, from the Amazonian Tam Sager Gandert as the wise-cracking Connie to the diminutive Lynne Jenson as Betsy, did help to separate one sister from another as much as the limited set of identifying traits did that were scattered throughout the dialogue.

"The Octette Bridge Club" has a terrific set, designed by Wally Hinds, and a wonderful collection of costumes, designed by Mary Ritenour. The act one hats were particularly notable. The act two costumes are Hallowe'en get-ups, which tended to add to the artifical atmosphere of the writing.

The performances were all adequate or better, although there did seem to be an unusual number of line glitches for late in a play's run. Wes Ball, as the photographer, didn't make much of an impression. As for the sisters, I'll list my impressions in descending order of age:
- Candy Cain Spahr, as Martha, gave a memorably forceful performance as a generally unlikable person.
- Minnie Tee, as the spinster Mary, particularly shone in act two, convincingly showing the physical signs of a stroke.
- Tam Sager Gandert, as Connie, did a terrific job throughout conveying an irreverent sense of humor backed by true love for her sisters.
- Amanda Libbey, as Nora, gave a sweet performance of a woman remaining in love with her husband through a decade (and more) of married life.
- Barbara Hawkins-Scott, as Alice, probably had the smallest role of the sisters, but kept in quiet command of her character throughout, showing deep sisterly concern for Mary, the sister boarding with her.
- Abby Avery, as Ann, was attractive throughout (in spite of an unflattering act one hairstyle), but revealed frequent hints of a Southern accent and just couldn't make up for the unpleasant turn of character Ann showed in act two.
- Lorie Dunn, as Lil, seemed too young in act one and too old in act two, but did a good job of portraying an outgoing personality.
- Lynne Jenson, as Betsy, is intense and acts beautifully, but it's all in the service of a character who loses audience sympathy as the play goes on.

Adriana Bosna Warner's direction, while faithfully pointing up the plot, was saddled with blocking challenges that weren't completely overcome. With eight women onstage at two card tables, backs were turned to portions of the audience, or the upstage women were partially obscured. Having a sing-along at a piano upstage also tended to distance the play's action from the audience.

The play is really the problem. We are dealing with too many sisters too much of the time, and no amount of effort could redeem the dreary direction the play takes. Nicely mounted, Kudzu Playhouse's production of "The Octette Bridge Club" just doesn't hold attention throughout and leaves the audience feeling cheated, never really coming to know these sisters in depth. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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