Posted on: Tuesday, February 10, 2004

'Betty' survives excursion into darkness

By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Advertiser Drama Critic

 •  'Betty's Summer Vacation'

8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Kennedy Theatre, University of Hawai'i-Manoa

$15 general; $12 seniors, military, UH faculty/staff; $10 non-UHM students; $3 UHM students

956-7655

The University of Hawai'i-Manoa is flexing its repertoire by staging a contemporary black comedy on the Kennedy Theatre stage.

Christopher Durang's "Betty's Summer Vacation" satirizes America's insatiable appetite for shocking "reality" entertainment as the heroine of the title copes with bizarre roommates in a summer vacation cottage.

As in his earlier plays "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You" and "The Marriage of Bette and Boo," Durang is not shy about poking holes in treasured institutions and making his audiences squirm at the same time.

Expect politically incorrect language and shocking situations in this play, and understand that protesting against them pales against the reality of modern media pandering to declining audience tastes. Notice instead there's something almost refreshing in the absurd crassness of the plot — it doesn't pretend to be something else, and it makes a point that goes deeper than its surface inanity.

Betty (Megan Patton) and her friend Trudy (Nicole Brilhante) arrive at the seashore, wondering whom their summer roommates might be. The first is Keith (Pedro Haro), a shy serial killer with bloody rubber gloves and a hatbox full of severed heads. Next is Buck (Ely Rapoza) a hunky, humpy dimwit with a scrapbook of pictures of his private parts.

Lastly, Mrs. Siezmagraff (Stephanie Kong) Trudy's mother and the owner of the house decides to move in as well, bringing with her a derelict exhibitionist in a ratty raincoat (Nate Hayashi).

Trudy and her mother are non-stop talkers, and much of their early conversation centers on Trudy's childhood abuse — her father raped her and her mother did nothing to stop it. Buck wants sex, Keith wants to be left alone with his collection, and Betty just wants peace and quiet.

Up to this point, the show is simply a bad exaggeration of television insult sitcoms. And, fitting for that genre, Durang introduces a laugh track. The laughter comes from the ceiling and seems to stimulate the characters to increasingly coarse dialogue.

Next, the laugh track gives way to voices that urge the characters to behave even more badly. There is a rape, a severed penis and a freshly-severed head.

Ultimately, the voices increase their demands and three figures (Shawn Thomsen, Marissa Robello and Adrian Martin) crash through the ceiling, costumed like metallic space insects. They want more vivid entertainment. They are the crazed and voyeuristic audience for survival reality programming and demand further excess. They represent (gulp) most of us.

Betty Burdick directs the show and nicely increases tension as events snowball.

The production culminates in an explosion that reduces the beach house to smoldering ruins. Set designer Joseph Dodd and lighting designer Daniel Anteau make it happen with a big bang.

Through it all, Betty survives as the voice of normalcy. Whether we care about her in the final scene, and whether her last message hits home, is the ultimate test of Durang's deeper message.


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