Entertainment » Theatre

The Invisible Scarlet O'Neil

by Christine Malcom
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Sep 12, 2017
The Invisible Scarlet O'Neil

To celebrate its twentieth years of focusing on "complex, dynamic (and often combative) female characters," Babes with Blades Theatre Company opens its anniversary season with its first commissioned work, Barbara Lhota's "The Invisible Scarlet O'Neil". Although the work itself has a few rough edges, great characters, complex relationships, a perfect period vibe and inventive staging make this production great.

Adapted from Chicago native Russell Stamm's comic strip, which ran from 1940-1956, the story's focus on talented, ambitious, compassionate women called on to step back into the margins after the end of World War II resonates soundly in the present day. Also welcome is the variety of women the play features, from the expected plucky Girl Reporter with unexpected super powers to the Warrior Landlady, the larger-than-life characters join forces to confront issues from everyday sexism to super villains.

The Factory Theater's black box space is definitely on the intimate side, which presents considerable challenges. For the most part, though, the production successfully and creatively overcomes these.

Risers on three sides of the stage accommodate the audience. Cast members make use of entrances upstage left and right, as well as the diagonal aisles that give out on to the theater lobby. The blocking is occasionally awkward, given the solid wall separating the center audience section from the house left section, as well as the frequent shifts in scene, often affected by actors exiting, then re-entering via the same "door."

The upstage wall is a scrim. It's occasionally used to great effect to allow a character to move through the scene in silhouette, and more liberal use of it might have eased some of the issues with clumsy blocking.

Through most of the show, the scrim is front lit, and its surface is broken by a series of black frames that partition G. "Max" Maxin IV's projections into comic-like panels. Although the text fly-ins and sound cues delivering internal monologues, fight foley and so on aren't always perfectly in sync, the visuals and sharp humor of the scene-setting "stage directions" honor the look of Stamm's original strip without sacrificing narrative clarity.

Given the space restrictions, Scenic Designer Milo Bue answers the production's needs with a handful of impressively multi-purpose, pristine white set pieces that serve as lab benches, reception desks, sofas, and end tables as needed. The whole cast clearly drilled with positioning these pieces and minimal props, which keeps the action moving.

Kimberly G. Morris does stellar work outfitting the cast. From the gorgeous 40s silhouettes of Jean and Scarlet's skirt suits to the silver screen elegance of "Hedy Labarr's" flowing dressing gown, Morris captures not just the glamor of the era, but the distinct lines and color scheme dear to comics.

Furthermore, Morris's eye facilitates the double casting, which is a dramatic/directorial choice, rather than a practical concern. With a pair of cat's eye glasses and an exaggeratedly old-fashioned hairstyle, she transforms one actor from a high-strung German scientist into a guilt-tripping surrogate mother and the wise-cracking newspaper receptionist into the imperious Hollywood starlet cum super genius.

It's not clear from the program to whom the credit for the invisibility effect should go, but it's pulled off with low-budget charm. Scarlet's pale, blue-green suit is piped with an eerie blue, flexible tube light that also runs in swags around the bow of her blouse. With a clever bit of dialogue-as-exposition, the audience learns, as Scarlet does, that she can control her super power by flexing a nerve in her left wrist. When combined Meghan Erxleben's lighting design, it serves both the narrative and the show's thoughtful aesthetic well.

Director Leigh Barrett and the cast have quite the job of work tackling Lhota's script and to bring the lingo and humor of both period and genre off the page. Overall, they meet the challenge with skill and gusto.

As the title heroine, Chloe Baldwin completely nails it. Her body language and earnest delivery land almost every one of the jokes, many of which appropriately sit on the line between hopelessly corny and genuinely funny.

Of particular note on an already strong performance is the excellent rapport Baldwin establishes with Margaux Fournier who plays young genius Sarah Blue. And to Fournier's credit, her wistful admiration for Scarlet mirrors and amplifies the way Scarlet is in awe of the role models in her life, from the genius scientists to the newspaper women who have to claw for every inch of recognition.

Lisa Herceg has personality and comic timing to spare in her dual roles as Hedy and Marcey. Moreover, she's virtually unrecognizable as the same woman, thanks to how fully she inhabits each character. Lynne Baker shines more brightly as the wonderfully wacky Doris than the dowdy Dr. Hertzfeldt, though that's likely more attributable stronger writing for the former.

Ashley Fox throws herself entirely into the over-the-top goomba role of Judy Butafuco. Judy's dialogue is nine-tenths malapropisms, a gag that might have easily worn thin in less capable, confident hands.

On the flip side, Aneisa Hicks bears the burden of playing it straight amidst the chaos as the cool, capable reporter Jean Sharp. Like Fox, Hicks has a great ear for the rapid-fire rhythm of the dialogue and makes for a natural object of Scarlet's hero worship.

If there's a performance that isn't quite as remarkable as the others, it's Elizabeth MacDougald's as the villainous Evanna Keil. MacDougald doesn't quite have the body language of the period down, and her feel for the scenery-chewing lines is occasionally hit and miss. But in fairness to the actor, the show definitely shines a light on the good guys. It's the origin story of super heroine and her league of extraordinary women, so there's less love in the script for the bad gal.

In various supporting roles, Kirk Osgood and Chris Cinereski are both capable. Osgood is particularly impressive in "fighting" an invisible Scarlet early on (kudos, also, to Libby Beyreis for the Violence Design overall), and Cinerski is quite enjoyably shameless in his physical comedy as interchangeable guards and cops.

"The Invisible Scarlet O'Neil runs through October 14 at The Factory Theater, 1623 W. Howard, Chicago. For tickets or information, visit BabesWithBlades.org

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.


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