They say you shouldn’t count your chickens before they hatch. You also shouldn’t cash in your stamps for prizes before you have them all glued down. And Germaine Lankowski discovers that the hard way as her family and friends conspire against her after she wins a million stamps in a local contest. Chaos ensues in the otherwise humdrum life of the Fells Point matron in 1963 and an evening of non-stop drama and character assassinations follows as Fells Point Corner Theatre presents Les Belles Soeurs. Directed by Richard Barber, this Baltimore adaptation brings the shared world of a ‘stupid rotten life’ and all the struggles of 15 women to the stage for an evening of melodrama, madness, and a little bit of laughter.
Director Richard Barber doubles as the show’s Set Designer, creating the interior of a Fells Point town home circa 1963 to life with simple decorative choices. Highlighting the Catholic influence with pictures of the pope and a mounted cross Barber uses the atmospheric space to highlight the religious undertones of the production. Decorating the set with authentic appliances from the time period helps the audience to shift subtly back into the early 60’s without having any textual cues upon which to otherwise rely. Kate Bishop, the show’s Dramaturg, steps in to design the outward front of the door, creating a realistic feel of Fells Point row homes complete with the fancy painted screens.
The production ends up reading more like a series of character profiles that slip loosely in and out of each other’s lives. Things get a bit hectic on the stage from time to time, and this finds itself awkwardly balanced with the dramatic pauses turned into soliloquies that give the audience an even further insight into the personalities of these 15 women. The book meanders and jumbles in places but overall provides an entertaining look at the relationships a small community— be the relations sisterly, neighborly, or otherwise. Barber’s shift to Baltimore in his interpretation of the production falls a little flat. Other than the references to various locations and one failed attempt by one actor with a Baltimore-accent, it doesn’t really have a down-home Maryland feel to it.
Barber does, however, create a great deal of uproarious choreography and shenanigans during the “Ode to Bingo,” which occurs in the second act. If you’ve ever played Bingo or knows someone who does— the whole scene is hysterical. There’s dancing and chanting, cheering and lamenting and it makes for the most bizarre and simultaneously entertaining moment of the production. It becomes a unifying moment in the production; despite the differences in their lives they can all relate to that shared elation of Bingo.
Delving into these character profiles, as each woman has a distinctly different place in the pecking order, are some of Baltimore’s finest acting talents, as not only do they have to personally identify with the woman they’re adapting but also float that character into several social circles, be them disgruntled housewives, bitter sisters, and even devout Catholics. The relationships that develop in this production find a genuine existence upon the stage among these women.
Carrying a charismatic tune that waltzes to its own drum is the black sheep of the family Paulette (Kate Shoemaker). Her arrival sparks chaos in the house of many stamp-gluers and her personality is a radiant blast of unique light that shines brightly above the others. Shoemaker’s character presents a pivotal moment in the play and serves to foil every crotchety do-good Catholic woman on stage. She exudes a vixen-like air but is truly haunted deep down, letting that darkness slide up from the depths of her being and slowly slither out into the ether with heavy words and harrowing emotions.
When it comes to physical comedy Olive Doyle (Amy Mulvihill) has it in the bag. Mulvihill’s character is bound to a wheelchair and has virtually no lines but her comic antics are the talk of the town when she starts misbehaving. Acting like a spoiled and impetuous child, Mulvihill adds comic relief to every scene that garners her focus and when she starts pitching out of her chair like a sack of weighted potatoes the laughs just keep coming.
But the crazy has only just begun, and holding the title for certifiable is Yvette Lorenzo (Terry A. Laurino). A flighty melodramatic character who disappears into her world of delusions, Laurino gives 110% in the field of vocalizing her lunacy. One soliloquy in particular involves a three minute rant of un-ending names that brings the audience to thunderous laughter, making you remember her character even if she gets lost in the throng from time to time. Foiling the delusional crazy character is Mrs. O’Keefe (Margaret Condon) with her haughty airs and ‘better-than-you’ routine, Condon brings a well-balanced interloper into the midst of the disgruntled housewives. Her story isn’t all that different except that she believes herself to be above the rest and takes every opportunity to express this with subtle hand gestures, vocalizations and sickeningly sweet facial expressions.
The crux of the drama revolves around the three sisters, Rose (Ann Marie Feild) Gabby (Hillary Mazer) and Germaine (Helenmary Ball). These three women bicker and bite and bash insults about between them like true sisters in a rivalry. They agree on precious little, but when they do it’s a fierce sounding trio that resonates across the stage. Field and Mazer are constantly at each other’s throats, ruffling one another’s feathers at the best of times. Mazer in particular is a pistol that shoots off her mouth with a sharp stinging flare. Field matches that energy and holds her own in the sisterly battles, waging war on the others present as well with a rich gusto. The pair of fiery battleaxes makes for a series of crazy catty moments that add a good deal of laughs to the strife of their daily lives.
Ball takes the cake, or in this case the stamps. Acting the epitome of a dissatisfied housewife of the early 1960’s she’s proper and yet loose-lipped in the same go. She starts with a silly charged energy to her character, excited over winning her stamps. This energy shifts and evolves into a darker more conceded feeling that comes tumbling out through her words and actions as the play progresses. She snipes and then blasts her daughter Linda (Kelly Cavanaugh) clear out of the water like a bubbling volcano— finding the perfect balance between irate mother and well-raised Catholic. Ball adds a feisty element to the sisterly trio particularly when they start hating on the fourth sister.
Even if it’s a bit confusing at times, be sure to catch the women before they flee from the stage. Le Belles Soeurs is certainly a memorable evening in the theatre.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.