A modified version of this review was posted for a very short time on Vital Source Online. I've decided to publish it here for lack of another outlet. For the full story (and my opinion of the story) see the next post.
The Book of Liz at Boulevard
By Rex Winsome
The Boulevard Ensemble Theatre's Milwaukee premiere production of David and Amy Sedaris' The Book of Liz, approaches the play without the cartoonish costumes, the ludicrously artificial sets, and the other visual stunts that had New York reviewers raving about the Sedaris' own production in 2001. By stripping away all these visuals, director Mark Bucher was able to tackle this cinematic, scene-change ridden comedy with little or no budget.
The use of direct narration to describe the scenes and action might be a viable (even bold) approach to this visual, technically challenging play if the narration had been funny and stylistically consistent with the script. Unfortunately, it was neither. Instead, Bucher worked against the script, inundating this idiosyncratic play with tired gags, clichés, and lame references to pop songs (I'll never understand why adding a line from a recognizable song is supposed equal free laughs.) It does look like Bucher succeeded in not spending any money on the production itself, but not in a raw, simple "towards a poor theatre" sort of way, more of a "forget set design, lets just throw all this random kitschy stuff we've got laying around at em" sort of way.
Much of the humor of this piece managed to shine through all this muck thanks to a talented cast. Beth Monhollen played the title character wonderfully straight. She navigates the Sedaris' bizarre situations (from a religious sect devoted to cheese ball production to a pilgrim themed restaurant staffed almost entirely with recovering alcoholics) with a simple, genuine performance, making her the funniest part of the show. The rest of the cast also hit some moments perfectly, especially David Oplinger, Ruth Boulet and Kathleen Williams, but their performances lacked consistency. We probably shouldn't blame them though, because their weak points were characterized by the same kind of hamming-it-up and desperate begging for laughs that populates their director's long pre-show speeches.
My personal experiences at the Boulevard have been mixed. They've produced many excellent plays, often by playwrights that don't get much attention elsewhere in the city, but occasionally their productions slide into the kind of amateurish goofing off that practically sank this show.
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