Dignity is always grist for the comic mill. And kids trample adult dignity as joyfully as they step on an ant. (Unless, of course, they're in the mood to observe the ant, in which case they connect us back to that other nemesis of dignity: wonder). But, the wonder of childhood only peeks into this show, obliquely, by implication -- as though from the shadows at the top of the stairs, while the grown-ups are getting drunk and raucous at a party.
"When you have kids, your life is over!" sums up the evening's mood of hyperbolic comic despair. It's the way kids step on a guy's balls or barge into the bathroom to watch a guy "take a dump" and similar affronts that inspire Rose's mordant quips. However, I'm reluctant to quote from the script; in the cold, formality of print, the humor might not come through. For, in addition to a great sense of timing, Rose has developed a complicated relation with his audience. He can say nasty things, without ever seeming nasty (and without needing to seem "not nasty"). He trusts us to see through him. And we do.
The same may be said for his partner, Fred "Red Bean" Plunkett. Red Bean, who improvises responses to questions submitted by the audience, pushes this "nasty" persona even further -- at times, relying on an outrageous, down-and-dirty misanthropy for a laugh, if he can find nothing better at hand. But, of course, improv is an art of chance, not perfection. That's the fun of it. Singer-songwriter Peter Orr adds his musical drollery to the proceedings.
Just as I was curious about I Love My Kids because of Rose's track record, I was curious about Mademoiselle Blackwell because of UNO's history of triumphs at the American College Theater Festival. In 1995, with Shirley Sergent's Father's Prize Poland China and in 2000, with Rebecca Basham's Lot's Wife, UNO won the Festival's National Student Playwrighting Award. The plays were performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Mademoiselle Blackwell by graduate student Susan Chenet is this year's entry in the competition. The play focuses on a turning point in the life of Elizabeth Blackwell, "the first woman doctor of modern times in the United States," as the playbill has it. Blackwell was a bold feminist pioneer, who graduated first in her class at med school, despite considerable obstacles that were thrown in her way. She ended up as a colleague of Florence Nightingale.
On Sean Creel's suggestive monochromatic set, we see five 19th-century hospital beds, with white drapes. These, in various permutations, will suggest all the locales of the story. We meet Blackwell (the engaging Ashley Ricord) as she takes her place among the nursing students of La Maternité Hospital in France. The head of the school, Madame Charrier (Alexis Cooley), is a tough, demanding woman who feels an immediate distrust for the newcomer. Her intuition is well grounded, for Blackwell is already a doctor and her enrollment is a ruse for gaining access to the operating theater, where she hopes to learn surgery.
The story unfolds in a series of well-constructed scenes. Blackwell, in order to save a dying infant, is forced to reveal her professional secret to Charrier's protégé (Heather Surdukan). Eventually, the truth comes out. Blackwell and her formidable superior are forced to reach an uneasy, but profound, mutual respect.
The cast, under Debbie Delaney's direction, did an excellent job. This imaginative historical drama is a credible contender for national honors. Here's hoping.
- Columnist Chris Rose (lower left), comedian Red Bean (upper left) and singer-songwriter Peter Orr lend their talents to Rose's latest screed, I Love My Kids, But ... .