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Raising the Bar; Duty Bound 

Shine Productions is the bright new brainchild of producers Barry A. Lemoine and Rose Marie Sand, best known for their premiere production, last year's An Evening With Betsy, which earned a Big Easy Award nomination as Best Original Work in Theatre.

What with the usual chaos and the demands of theater companies, both better known and closer to home, I missed that surprise hit altogether, and so, in an effort to catch up, I hastened to the Nunez Community College auditorium in Chalmette, where Shine Productions has installed itself for a two-year trial run as a resident repertory theater.

Judging from the large and appreciative audience on the Sunday matinee I attended, Shine Productions has sensed a need and quickly picked up enthusiastic local support.

The show was Jekyll and Hyde, the Musical (by Frank Wildhorn, Leslie Bricusse and Steve Cuden). It was smoothly staged by Tony Ortego and Bea Vollentine (who provided the piano accompaniment, while attired as a fetching Victorian fille-de-joie).

Fetching Victorian filles-de-joie were very much in evidence, in fact -- most strikingly in the person of Jessica Bayard, who portrayed the tough/tender Lucy with naturalness and charm and who put some serious voltage into her songs. A comparable poise was evident in the part of Stride (Christian Bordelon) and, even flashed curiously in the cameo of Lady Beaconsfield (Samantha Catalanotto).

The rest of the show was done well enough to win the hearts of the audience (which is, after all, the bottom line in community theater). Generally, the actors seemed more comfortable singing than acting and the ensemble numbers, large and small, were more entertaining than the solos.

In any case, theater has many different roles to play. As I left the auditorium, people everywhere around me were full of high spirits and a sort of civic pride. However, if Shine Productions hopes to attract out-of-towners (from faraway New Orleans, for instance), they will have to raise the bar a bit in terms of professionalism.

So much for the production. As for the script, the authors have, as it were, taken an exquisite, succulent filet mignon, ground it up, added 70 pounds of lard and pulverized pig trotters, in order to produce a long, a very long, sausage -- 100-percent baloney. I only hope one or two of the happy spectators that passed me exiting the theater feels the urge to read Robert Louis Stevenson's brilliant tale -- which is very, very short. They will, I must warn them, look in vain for pseudo-Brechtian social irony, or caricatures of the snooty, decadent powers-that-be. They will encounter no wronged idealistic researcher, no serial murders, no virginal fiancee and no whore-with-a-heart-of-gold.

The only love affair, in fact, is between Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde; and it's one of the most fascinating, psychologically subtle studies of love and hate ever written.

There are some interesting, if somewhat depressing, observations that might be made about the gap that separates Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Tale and Jekyll & Hyde, the Musical, particularly touching upon the "serious" pretensions of a certain type of modern musical. But I feel myself on the verge of becoming testy, so let's move on.

The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, continuing its tradition of presenting one new original play in full production as part of its season, this year offered Slow Fugue Before Dying by Elizabeth Nell Dubus -- a study of three generations of women who labor under a strange curse in regard to soldiers at war.

Under Sydney Sidner's direction, Abby Lake, Beverly Trask and Jennifer Kelley created believable and well-defined characters, who had the feeling of being utterly different from each other, while at the same time, paradoxically, seeming to represent three different stages of a similar development.

Since part of the playwright's game is to call in question the reliability of what characters say happened, of what they think happened and of what actually did happen (if that last term can be said to exit), it's hard to tell the story. They each -- grandmother, mother and daughter -- had sex with soldiers. That much is certain. How much tenderness or love was involved depends on "which version of what" you believe. Except, that is, in the case of the young girl, who seems truly and unequivocally entranced by her GI beau.

Sean Patterson, who was called on to play all three soldiers (from the Spanish-American, World War I and World War II) managed to give each man a different feeling, without slipping into caricature. Nonetheless, the abstraction of the "soldier," while it serves the idea of the play, lays a perilous load on the actor. A series of quick entrances as different characters in a serious play requires "courage above and beyond the call of duty."

click to enlarge The cast of Slow Fugue Before Dying, clockwise from lower left: Sean Patterson, Jennifer Kelley, Beverly Trask and Abby Lake.
  • The cast of Slow Fugue Before Dying, clockwise from lower left: Sean Patterson, Jennifer Kelley, Beverly Trask and Abby Lake.
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