Nicole Tessier (right) as Joan of Arc takes a stab at Charles Genevieve d'Eon de Beaumont, played by Jessica L. Jacob, in a dream sequence in "Masked Balls."
The creative team that brought last year's hit show, "Hysterical: A Short History of the Vibrator" to University of Hawai'i at Manoa's Kennedy Theatre, presents a new work this season with, "Masked Balls: a story of sex, lies, and measuring tape."
Unfortunately, this masquerade is no ball.
"Masked Balls," based on the true story of Charles Genevieve d'Eon de Beaumont, an 18th century gender-bending French diplomat, soldier and spy. It has the potential to amuse and entertain, but is burdened with a cumbersome script, chaotic directing and an unorganized and often times, unintelligible ensemble. This production never quite takes off.
Director Jennifer Goodlander's use of a theatre-in-the-round, although creative and noteworthy, is a double edged-sword, as many audience members spend much of the performance looking at the backs of actors. In addition, playwright Hilary Hadley Wright's script, while amusing at times, is more often clumsy and complicated with frequent jumps back and forth through time.
The sword fights, painstakingly choreographed by Jessica Lee Jacob, add an interesting touch of realism to the production. As do the various 18th century dances, choreographed by Lara Bowles, which are accompanied by the lilting sounds of the harpsichord with original music composed by Daniel Morse and performed by Allyson Paris.
For "Masked Balls," Wright has split the lead role of Charles Genevieve d'Eon de Beaumont into two separate characters, Charles (Jessica Lee Jacob) and Genevieve (Pedro Haro) and it works well with the story. The duality of the character is emphasized and audience members are treated to both sides of a fascinating story. Jacob and Haro both bring a refreshing honesty and reality to their characters and to the production.
Justin Grimes, as the campy and over-the-top Rose Bertin, (imagine Dame Edna in Marie Antoinette's ball gown), serves as both narrator and Charles/Genevieve's confidant to the delight and amusement of the audience.
With a quirky Russian accent and the occasional "Da," Stephanie Kong stands out as Elizabeth, Empress of Russia. Other small, yet notable cameos include Nicole Tessier as Joan of Arc and Mimi Sadoshima as the Marquise de Pompadour.
The six dancers (Ashley Chu, Coty Ishitani, Leah Lum, Gretchen Nilsen, Lisa Nilsen and Nikki Sterman), who play various characters throughout the play, though dressed in eye-catching and intricately detailed costumes designed by Megan Patton and with their hair styled by Jennifer Bolieu to look like something out of a 90's rave, are like empty boxes wrapped in fancy paper. Pretty to look at, but that's about it.
The Comte de Broglie (Adrian Martin) and Abbess/Spy/Envoy (Rebecca Lavalley) who are both more like caricatures, rather than characters, round out the cast.