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From Kvetching to Court Jesters 

Let's start with the good news.

No, you haven't picked up last week's paper by mistake. I'm repeating myself. Last week, I reviewed The Ritz at Le Petit -- a crummy script by a famous playwright which benefited from some inspired performances. The Prisoner of Second Avenue, currently on the boards at Rivertown Rep, isn't as bad as The Ritz. But it's close.

So, once again, let's start with the good news: in this case, Peter Gabb as the protagonist, a cranky, self-pitying advertising executive named Mel Edison.

At the beginning of the play, Mel is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The signs of this are a continual whining about the irritants in his posh Upper East Side life -- the broken air conditioner, dogs that bark, his next door neighbors who play their music too loud, and, as if this weren't enough, the flusher on the toilet that has to be jiggled to stop from running. He is, to borrow a word from the Lower East Side, a world-class kvetch! When he's not kvetching, he's bullying his wife -- who goes to great lengths to coddle him. She even volunteers to jiggle the toilet for him, so as to spare his sensibilities.

Now, there are certain qualities that are innate in an actor and cannot be manufactured. Peter Gabb is innately likable. If he plays a bad guy, it will be a likable bad guy. Not because Gabb tries to ingratiate himself, because that's just the way it is. Good thing for Mel. It's that slight tinge of elf or imp that Gabb brings to the character that keeps us from forming a posse and interceding on behalf the Mrs.

Helen Blanke is believable and almost touching as long-suffering Edna. I say, almost, because she is believable enough make you want to shake her sometimes. But, this is a marriage made in heaven (or hell). They are in it together. At any rate, Mel does lose his job and the resulting unemployment does not improve his disposition.

Director Stocker Fontelieu gets what is to be gotten from this irritable paean to the heartbreaks of white-collar domesticity.

Well, fearing I might be getting a bit irritable myself, I decided to stop by Le Chat Noir to see if Claudius, King of Denmark, would be convicted of murder. At least, there would be no early script by a famous playwright to deal with. In fact, there would be no script at all.

Actors Kara Hadigan, Dane Rhodes and Michael Sullivan "developed" the concept of Shakespeare on Trial and as the verb implies, the shows are not written. Every Tuesday night, one of the Bard's characters is prosecuted before a real local judge. The audience gets to play the jury. And nobody knows what's going to happen -- least of all the witnesses.

Naturally, Shakespeare on Trial varies wildly from show to show. But of the three trials I've attended, one was amusing and two were hilarious.

In the case of the state versus Claudius, King of Denmark, U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Lance Africk presided -- wearing a wig, at least for the prosecution's case (he excused his bare head to the defense, saying he had "wigged out").

There were some fine points of law that were not easy to resolve, such as whether evidence from a ghost was admissible. And then there was the question of Hamlet's sanity, since he was often observed to walk around Elsinore speaking to himself -- in iambic pentameter, no less.

Some of the cast from the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane production of several years ago had been dragooned into service (Tony Molina, Gavin Mahlie, Ron Gural, Andrea Frankle) and they proved themselves adept with off-the-cuff, as well as off-the-wall, humor. The same may be said for Joe Peiffer, who has steadfastly defended one Elizabethan villain after another.

The evening was full of inspired nonsense. For instance, a forensic pathologist testified that the old King Hamlet had not died from a serpent bite, but rather from hen's bane poison administered through the ear while the victim was sleeping, which resulted in hypo-coagulation. Thereupon, the prosecutor (Kara Hadigan) proposed a reenactment of the crime to help the jury understand difficult-to-grasp concepts like hypo-coagulation and sleeping.

When Claudius (Ron Gural) took the stand in his own defense, he pointed out that he hadn't seduced his brother's widow, Gertrude, but that he was faced with an embarrassing situation, since, after all, there was a queen left over. Furthermore, he had not run from the play-within-the-play because of any guilt, but because he couldn't stand to see that old community theater production another time.

And so it went -- delightful and silly from first to last. The perfect restorative for critical dyspepsia.

click to enlarge Mel (Peter Gabb) puts his wife, Edna (Helen Blanke) through the paces in Rivertown Rep's recent offering of Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue.
  • Mel (Peter Gabb) puts his wife, Edna (Helen Blanke) through the paces in Rivertown Rep's recent offering of Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue.


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