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VOL. 123 | NO. 82 | Friday, April 25, 2008

Production Shows Humorous Side of Theater

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"The comedy in this show is timeless. It's as old as the Greeks and as new as '30 Rock.'"

- Kell Christie
Name: Kell Christie
Position: Artistic Director
Company: Theatre Memphis
Basics: Theatre Memphis today will debut "Room Service," a 1930s comedy by John Murray and Allen Boretz.

Stage actors, directors and producers probably know all too well the chaos that erupts backstage before a new play takes the limelight. Theatre Memphis will explore and celebrate the glorious, if somewhat disorganized, lives of theater people, with a quick-witted tale of pre-production disasters when "Room Service" debuts today.

"Room Service," by John Murray and Allen Boretz, is a 1930s comedy about everything theaters don't want their patrons to see. It made a splash during the Great Depression when most people couldn't afford anything more expensive than a good laugh.


Always relevant

Kell Christie, Theatre Memphis' artistic director, said the timelessness of the play's humor is refreshing in the new millennium as well.

"There are not a lot of comedies being written for the stage lately," she said. "But there's a grand tradition of comedy in American history. This play was a smash in 1937."

The plot focuses on the efforts of theater producer Gordon Miller (played by Memphis community theater veteran Tony Isbell), who is staging a new play under precarious financial circumstances. While he looks for a backer, the cast and crew take up residence in a hotel on credit, wracking up the modern-day equivalent of about $15,000.

Miller and his compatriots find themselves dancing from one near-miss-disaster to another as they try to keep a roof over their heads while sorting through the often-manic details of the play, which can possibly save the day.

"Room Service" inspired two films, including one by the Marx brothers.

Christie, a native of Henderson, Tenn., has served on staff at Theatre Memphis since 2002. She said even those who are unfamiliar with memorizing lines and building sets will find the show's semi-convoluted plot and machine-gunfire one-liners amusing.

"The comedy in this show is timeless," she said. "It's as old as the Greeks and as new as '30 Rock.'"

Christie also compared the production's sharp-edged humor to other well-known laughmeisters whose works personified that spirit of laughter in spite of tears. Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart, a writer of the wartime-era feel-good show "M.A.S.H.," all come to mind, she said.

"I think (Allen and Boretz's) characters were in some way influential, I'm guessing, on the kind of people who did 'The Show of Shows' and later on 'The Producers,'" Christie said. "Brooks, Simon and Gelbart became the real legends of comedy because of their comic dialogue. You'll see elements in the dialogue that remind you of all of your favorites. This kind of comedy appeals to mass culture."


Looney era

Cast member Marques Brown, who plays Harry, the director of the play in question, likens the production's comedic quality to another Depression-era joke factory.

"If you're a fan of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, you'll get these characters. They're so quick on their feet that they have an answer for everything," Brown said.

For his part, Brown said he really enjoyed taking on the role because it offers a different type of humor than slap-stick, which is typically associated with physical humor such as falls, slaps and knee-jerk reactions. Quick-wit is all about the dialogue, he said, adding that patrons can expect a barrage of well-timed verbal jabs and punts from curtain to curtain call.

"I love the whole style of this era. Out of the three main characters, mine is the most cynical; he's a realist and probably one of the driest onstage," Brown said.

Joining Brown and Isbell is an ensemble cast including the talents of Henry McDaniel,Stephen Garrett, Mandy Lane, Lyric Peters, Michael Khanlarian, Jack Kendall, James Dale Green and Stephen Burke.

"Most of the actors have worked together before," Christie said. "And, frankly, I'm honored to direct such a well-equipped group of comedic actors. They've all got their comic chops already."

Christie directed Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple" last season, which also gave her the chance to work with a mostly male cast.

"I like comedy and I like guys, so I chose the play and the play chose me," said Christie, who holds a master's of fine arts from the University of Memphis.

She worked on staff at the Harrell Theatre in Collierville before joining Theatre Memphis.

"'Room Service' is all about that classic theme in theater that the play must go up no matter what and when it finally does, everything will be just fine," Christie said.

"Room Service" runs Wednesday through Sundays for three weeks beginning today.

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