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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Stage Door’s ‘House of Blue Leaves’ is dynamic

Play delves into degrees of sanity.

STURGEON BAY, WISC. (WFRV) – Characters speak to the audience, themselves, each other and the world in general in Stage Door Theatre Company’s compelling production (four and a half stars out five) of “The House of Blue Leaves.” Info: www.ThirdAvenuePlayhouse.com.

It’s an unnerving play. It shines a light through a prism of mental illness. Virtually every character is touched – pun intended – and strangely fascinating.

Dynamic performances dominate the John Guare play, set in 1965 in Queens, New York. The drama/dark comedy is influenced by the societal turmoil of the Vietnam War era. In some ways, that was an insane time. “The House of Blue Leaves” certainly reflects that, and it remains pertinent today because certain elements keep surfacing in scary news – notably of mad bombers and killers.

Action is set in the apartment of Artie and Bananas Shaughnessy. Artie (Bob Boles) has delusions of grandeur as a songwriter. Bananas (Amy Ensign) has delusions, period. She is schizophrenic. Claiming Artie’s everything is his mistress, Bunny Flingus (Debra Babich). Bunny openly cuts Bunny to the quick and orders Artie around.

The interweaving of the characters is complex, and each of the actors has piles of nuances and explosive emotions to work with. Teaming with director Ryan Schabach, Boles, Ensign and Babich, make Act I a rigorous theatrical workout.

Other engaging characters emerge in Act II. The Shaughnessy son, Ronnie (Isaiah Spetz), has gone AWOL (and around the bend), and he plots to kill the pope, who is visiting New York. Eager to see the pope are three excitable nuns (Chris Milton, Anne St. Henry and Michaela Kraft). Visiting is movie star Corinna Stroller (Kay Allmond), the deaf fiancée of Artie’s childhood buddy and now Hollywood mogul, Billy Einhorn (Mark Moede), who eventually shows up, too.

Things get frenetic when Corinna produces two tickets to see the pope. Clamor ensues, with the stage brimming with two slo-mo, comical races to grab the tickets.

Stage Door Theatre Company makes “The House of Blue Leaves” an experience – music of the era, fittingly dressed apartment, New York accents, definitive characters and the aura of being witness to desperation.

It takes guts to put on “The House of Blue Leaves.”  Boles, Ensign and Babich have the kind of acting firepower to help pull it off.

The title refers to an institution to which Bananas seems destined to go. In a sense, what takes place in the play may well have been of that institution.

The final scene includes an action rarely seen on stage. It will set theatergoers abuzz.

REST OF SEASON: Patrick Barlow’s “The 39 Steps,” Sept. 18-Oct. 20. Info: www.ThirdAvenuePlayhouse.com.

VENUE: The 84-seat Studio Theatre is located in Third Avenue Playhouse in downtown Sturgeon Bay. It is a black-box theater, meaning the walls and such support beams are black. The focus becomes the stage, which is rectangular and has no curtain. The space is tucked into the corner of Third Avenue Playhouse, which is in its 13th year as a live performance venue. It previously was a movie theater, the Donna.

Please email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com.

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