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Half-Speed Horseplay 

by Michael Bowen

It's 1934 and the Cleveland Grand Opera is about to mount a production of Verdi's Otello. Just one problem: no Otello. The role is to be sung by world-famous tenor Tito Morelli, known as Il Stupendo. Of course, being an artist (and Italian!), he turns out to be temperamental, arrogant and hours late for rehearsal. He's mostly interested in chasing women and guzzling Chianti.

Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor concerns Morelli (Robert Wamsley); his jealous, raging wife, Maria (Maria A. Caprile); the opera company's impresario, Saunders (Tony Caprile), constantly fuming over logistics; a schlemiel named Max (Eric Paine), the company's gofer, assigned to be Morelli's body man and chaperone; the producer's daughter, Maggie (Briane Jordan), who's also Max's girlfriend, sort of; Saunders's sister, Julia (Cheryl-Anne Millsap), a socialite; Diana (Kari Mueller), the sultry temptress who is to sing the part of Otello's wife, Desdemona; and a bellhop (Buddy Todd) with an inclination for butting in to get celebrities' autographs.

How will the company put on the show if Il Stupendo proves unavailable? Will Morelli favor any of his groupies with his sexual charms? If he does, will Morelli's wife find out? Will Maggie persist in being starry-eyed about Il Stupendo, or will she and Max find true love?

Ludwig's farce answers all these questions in satisfying ways. Unfortunately, it's being given a merely adequate production at the Civic.

Farces aren't about psychological nuance: it's all about the shenanigans, stupid. They're meant to convince us that at least we're better off than those poor buffoons onstage -- idiots who race about, giving us vicarious thrills as we catch glimpses of the taboo. Then the fools get their comic comeuppance, and we can all go home feeling better about ourselves.

But the Civic's production isn't as feel-good as it could have been, and that's because of some slow pacing and lost opportunities for comedy.

The cast members, as a group, often step on lines, milking them for their emotional nuances, when they should instead simply barge ahead, trusting the audience to pick up on the mismatch of serious emotions and ridiculous situations.

It's fine to sacrifice character in the name of plot, but if you do, then the action has to be quicksilver lickety-split flash-in-the-pan fast. We're dealing with stock situations and predictable characters here, folks -- it's not as if the audience can't possibly imagine what's coming next. We know that the girl is going to hide in the closet, that the jealous wife will pop in at the most compromising moment, that the young leads will triumph over obstacles and find their way to the raptures of love. And it's actually quite pleasing, this knowing what to expect. But if playgoers can foresee everything, then the actors had better stay three steps ahead. At this, the Civic cast too often fails.

The proof is in the punch of audience reaction. Repeatedly, the Civic audience laughed at non-verbal gags: a man clinging in supplication to another man's knees; the first appearance of the young male lead in full operatic costume; not one but two girls hidden in the bedroom, and so on. The humor isn't primarily in the language. And it's not as if Ludwig fails to supply good verbal humor -- there are plenty of amusing one-liners. But the fun is in the door-slamming -- and Nik Adams's set, sturdy as it is, could do with even more crashing and pounding. Indeed, there's a coda to the entire play that sprints at the speed the entire performance should have had: breakneck, hyper, ridiculous, funny.

The actors who portray the bickering Italian couple stand out in their ability to deliver fast-moving comedy. As the tenor of the title, Wamsley commands the stage, eyes flaring with exasperation. We believe he might actually be Il Stupendo because -- even though we remain in a hotel suite throughout -- he enacts grand opera right there onstage in front of us, screaming in despair that he'll kill himself, right here, right now, with this... kitchen fork? Caprile is convincing as the wronged, irate Italian wife, and we believe her when she screams the threat that her faithless (if famous) tenor of a husband is "a-gonna be a soprano" if he fools around with any more dames.

One of the best-performed episodes is crammed with double-entendres in which frames of reference clash: Diana, that cheesecake leading lady, is going on and on about how they'd done it only once, how she's a professional, how she has wanted to do this sort of thing all her life -- and of course she's merely discussing her recent operatic performance with Morelli. Meanwhile, Tito and the audience are only thinking about sex. Mueller and Wamsley pull off the humor skillfully.

After all the yucks, Tenor does have a serious thing or two on its mind about how we might idealize and fall in love with the regular guy next door, if only we were able to imagine him in more glamorous circumstances. The ingenue (one of them, anyway) learns to shed her illusions and grow into a mature love affair.

Of course, in comic contrast, there are these two guys running around for most of the evening in big black beards and those baggy Elizabethan short pants. They should run around faster.

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