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Sept. 23, 2004
A supreme lesson in discipline
by ELLIN BELTZ
I'VE SEEN NEIL SIMON'S BILOXI
BLUES THREE TIMES now; of the three, North Coast Rep's production
is the only one I've thoroughly enjoyed. Veteran Director Gene
Cole has assembled seven men and two women and a tech crew that
reads like any Humboldt theater's wish list. The result is a
smooth, professional production that was a joy to watch from
beginning to end.
Biloxi Blues is about a boot camp deep in the Mississippi swamps
in 1942. It's a "memory play,"
told from the perspective of one of the characters who can stop
the action and directly address the audience. The narrator, Eugene
Morris Jerome, is played by talented Henry Kraemer, who also
played the lead in the first part of Simon's trilogy last year
at NCRT. Whether he will finish the series next year or be at
school elsewhere remains to be seen.
[At right: Henry
Karemer as Eugene and Stacie Nunes as Rowena. Below: corrie Sutter
as Daisy and Henry Kraemer as Eugene.]
We meet the recruits as they
are slowly transported across America on a train. Jerome introduces
of American stereotypes, the coarse and insulting Ray Selridge
(John Ireland), the bigoted Pole, Joseph Wykoski (Nathan Pierce),
a deluded Don Carney (Josh Kelly) and Arnold Epstein (Victor
Howard), who can't or won't submit to Army discipline and consequently
spends much of his time swabbing latrines.
As soon as the recruits arrive
at Biloxi, they meet demented drill sergeant Merwin J. Toomey
(Zachary Rouse), who subjects them to a Kafkaesque exercise in
discipline and a display of his total control over their lives.
The last recruit appears in
the mess hall. Slender, nervous James Hennesey is marvelously
played by Arcata High senior Chris Dewey, who rises to his challenging
role in a way that many professional actors could not.
The recruits fantasize about
what they would do if they only had a week to live. Almost all
of their fantasies are romantic or erotic. The exception is put
forth by the brilliant dyspeptic, Arnold Epstein, amazingly portrayed
by Victor Howard. He wants to see Sgt. Toomey receive a dose
of his own medicine. After an intense series of confrontations
with the sergeant, Epstein is the only recruit to get his wish.
Their final argument is an almost too real scene where an apparently
drunken Toomey manages a feat I had thought impossible, performed
at a competitive level with the incredibly talented Victor Howard.
Both men give the best performances of this scene I've seen;
Howard doesn't give an inch to the self-described "cruelest,
craziest, most sadistic goddam son-of-a-bitch you ever saw"
-- even with a loaded 45-caliber pistol pointed at his head.
Rouse ramps up the pressure and the tension until the audience
realizes he's just proven his other point; he's really the "smart,
compassionate, understanding and sympathetic teacher of raw young
men" that his platoon will come to understand only with
distance and maturity.
Meanwhile, we watch Eugene get
the three things he wanted, to "become a writer, not get
killed and lose my virginity." The two women in the play,
Rowena the hooker (Stacie Nunes) and Catholic school girl Daisy
Hannigan (Corrie Sutter), represent the two extremes of women
available to young recruits in wartime. While sexy Stacie pops
Eugene's cherry, it's dharmic Daisy to whom he gives his first
[At left: Josh
Kelly as Carney, Zachary Rouse as Toomey and Victor Howard as
The lights, set and staging
are elegantly minimal; Dan Stockwell deserves credit for following
the playwright's direction to be both representational and free
flowing. All the technical elements were excellent, especially
Marci Hutson (costumes), ReNey Smith (hair and makeup), Gabriel
Groom (sound design), and props (Theresa Ireland, Wanda Stapp
and Marcia Hutson).
The only thing NCRT needs to
address, and soon, is how to get more air into its auditorium.
I might almost believe the house managers' repeated statements
that it is impossible without spending money, except that the
two times I saw Cabaret the air was fine.
The poor air quality results
in a torpid and dispirited audience, with increased coughing
and restlessness through an otherwise brilliant second act. If
you're asthmatic like me, take your inhaler and sit in the last
row where a slight air current blows in from the west. Otherwise
get to the theater early and grab a seat in row one through four.
Season ticket holders can, for the first time, get reserved seating
Biloxi Blues continues Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at
NCRT, 300 Fifth St., Eureka, through Oct. 9 at 8 p.m. with one
2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Oct. 3. Because of adult language,
topics, mature content and violence, I recommend this production
for mature teens and older only. Call 442-NCRT for tickets or
visit www.ncrt.net for more information.
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