Pageant Play by Matthew Wilkas and Mark Setlock. Directed by Martha Banta.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...adding a pucker pout to it."
Matthew Wilkas as Bob; photo: Kevin Sprague
What are we doing to our children? This summer’s theater experience is emphasizing the competitive spirit in our youth with musicals and non-musicals, it seems. Whether forced into spelling bee competitions, child rape, or child beauty pageants there is an odd symmetry to the focus our best theater companies are presenting. Open now, and running through July 26 at the Unicorn Theatre at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA, is the latest excursion into the Hell that parents enter with their infant daughters. The world premiere of "Pageant Play" by two men who also appear in the show presents an unforgettable, somewhat regrettable, journey.
Pinky is the mother of a winner, a daughter named Chevrolet ("It’s French. It means ‘goat-like’ or ‘like a goat’."). Marge, whose real name is Bobbi-Jo, is the mother of a contender named Puddle. They become friendly rivals when Puddle beats Chevrolet in a small-town beauty competition. Pinky, in a friendly gesture, introduces Marge to the coaches who have brought her own daughter to prominence with their philosophy of S.H.I.E.T (pronounced in Texas, where the show is placed, exactly as you might expect). Smile. Hair. Eyes. Illusion. and if you still need it to win, Talent. The mothers become deadly competitors for their daughter’s triumph and ultimate win as "Supreme Queen National." That’s the basic plot.
Bobby and Bob, partners in the coaching business, are played by authors Mark Setlock and Matthew Wilkas. These two talented men also double as the spouses of Pinky (Wilkas) and Bobbi-Jo (Setlock). As the husbands they are mildly amusing and as the coaches they are flagrantly, almost ridiculously, gay and funny. Or should that be funny and GAY?
The two children are played by small spangled and tulled gowns. The way these dresses are handled tells you all you need to know about the two mothers, one protective, one abusive. Pinky, it seems, has been an abused competition child herself and her drive to succeed is based on her own mother’s drive for the same things. There’s been enough in the news these past several years about these children being abused, kidnaped, sexually molested, murdered and so on to make it clear that the characters in this new play are more real than they would seem to be, less humorous and funny than they come off as in their lines and more clearly represented when they are seen using their children as toys, instruments of torture or just as objects. The play makes these points well, but often in ways that abuse the audience as well.
It brings a question or two to the fore: are our theater audiences the same audiences who clamor for children masquerading as mini-adults? Are sophisticated city folk, and sophisticated country folk as well, eager to see mini-moppets made up like Marilyn Monroe, sporting tiny breast implants and dyed-blonde wigs? Are these children ever able to overcome the stigma of losing these competitions and the abuse enforced when they do lose?
One thinks of stories of the Hollywood children of the 1930s, the Shirley Temples and Judy Garlands, taken advantage of by studio heads and money-stealing parents and guardians. Is this beauty pageant world so very different from that one? We shake our heads over the drug use of a Garland or the lawsuits against parents of a Jackie Coogan. How do we react to the current rash of lost girls under the age of ten if not with the same sense of disgust and distrust of the adults involved?
Curiously this play includes two kidnapings, one with visibly dire results. The comedy here becomes near-tragedy and it is an uncomfortable experience at best. It is uncomfortable to laugh at the loss of innocence, but all right to laugh at the antics of two gay men in denial. We are tossed back and forth between these two visual elements in this play and at the end, while we applaud the hard work of the four players, we are appalled that we do so. At the end of the play we are not happy at having been there at all.
Wilkas is the funniest of the two men. His character, also an abused creature, is a genuinely touching human being lost in the soulless business he has helped to create. We can laugh with him, as he goes through a series of self-discoveries, because he allows us to do so. Setlock’s Bobby, the controlling, yet willing partner of a devious and evil competition mother, is very funny to watch but far too pathetic a human being to like. He also plays Bobbi-Joe’s husband, a wife-beater, with dark qualities that are genuinely terrifying. Both men are obviously talented performers. None of their characters are really sympathetic.
Daiva Deupree is Marge, the mother of Puddle. She has charm and style and a stage presence that is unmistakably sweet. As the only partially sympathetic character, and thus the heroine of the show, she comes off well. It is a bit hard to comprehend her completely. Her motives are bizarre, protecting a child she is also exploiting, but there is a back-story about Marge and Puddle, the Bobbi-Jo story, that helps her along.
Pinky is played by Jenn Harris. This woman would be pure evil if she wasn’t driven to accomplish her own mother’s goals in another generation. Pinky’s motives are selfish, nothing more. She covets the crown that was never her own. She believes in the game of these pageants as less a game and more a battle. She makes things warlike as she attempts to control every aspect of this situation. Harris plays her to the hilt. She displays passion but not love, eagerness but not enthusiasm, hostility but not anger. All of Harris’s interpretations of Pinky’s motives are played at the highest level (or the lowest if you’d rather), a white-hot intensity marking each move, each line, each gesture. It’s a hell of a performance, but Pinky is not someone you want to go home with, and for that intensity, Harris falls into the same sort personal image. Even her curtain call bow leaves her indistinguishable from Pinky. Unlike the other three players, she seems to inhabit her role, or has allowed it to inhabit her.
Martha Banta has obviously taken the play seriously and given it every ounce of energy that can be mustered. In her "notes" in the program she is clear: "...we are not exaggerating," she writes. She and the authors have put the focus in this topic where it belongs, on the parents and other adults who make the worst in our natures possible. That she has been able to wrench humor out of set changes is miraculous. At least it gives us a chance at going home feeling something other than disgust that the human race can consistently produce such monstrous adults.
The production values in the Unicorn are fine with a simple and functional set by Luke Hegel-Cantarella, appropriate costumes by Jessica Risser-Milne and fine lighting by Thom Weaver (no hyphen or second last name). Isadora Wolfe has provided some very silly dance movements that actually lighten up some darker moments of the play.
Whether your interest is in spelling bees, infant beauty pageants or any other highly competitive childhood sport, this play paints the darker picture. Bring along a handkerchief to stick in your mouth and clench your teeth upon. You’ll need something.
Jenn Harris, Daiva Deupree, Mark Setlock; photo: Kevin Sprague
Jenn Harris as Pinky; photo: Kevin Sprague
Pageant Play runs through July 26 at the Unicorn Theatre at the Berkshire Theater Festival on Route 7 in Stockbridge, MA. Prices range between $19.50 and $44. For ticket information call the box office at 413-298-5576.