Saturday, April 19, 2014

NEW YORK HUMOR IN"OLIVE AND THE BITTER HERBS"

By Chuck Graham, TucsonStage.com

photo by Tim Fuller
This Passover Seder becomes a time of truce for (from left) David Alexander Johnston, Eric Anson, Susan Claassen, Susan Kovitz and Jack Neubeck.
Watching a culture clash take place in a haunted mirror during a seasonal Jewish holiday doesn’t happen often, but here it is at Invisible Theatre in a Charles Busch-wacky production of “Olive and the Bitter Herbs.”
James Blair is at the controls as director, with IT’s managing artistic director Susan Claassen flaunting her love for the eccentric in the title role of Olive Fisher
Although that title could well be the name of a popular vegetarian rock band, it is actually Busch’s way of framing Olive as eternally bitter about everything.
From the gay couple who live next door in her rent-controlled East 30s Manhattan co-op, to the noisy roomer upstairs (who’s dead now, thank goodness), Olive is unhappy. Not just unhappy, but unhappy-unhappy, expressing herself in the most creatively insulting dialogue directed at everyone else onstage.
On opening night there was instant recognition and constant laughter from the audience, connecting with her double barreled insider complaints common to Big Apple life at the middle-class bohemian level, a lifestyle delightfully expressed through the catchy set design by Blair and Claassen.
In the play Olive resents having become an actor of a certain age, still hoping for that big role – even though her career peaked some 30 years ago as the “star” of a popular series of commercials with the hook line “Gimme the sausage” (remember that vintage TV ad where the salty old lady kept asking “Where’s the beef?” Like that).
Acting as loyal band members in this ensemble effort are Wendy (Susan Kovitz), a retired theater manager who considers herself a kind of caretaker for Olive; Robert (David Alexander Johnston), also retired, formerly an editor of children’s books; Trey (Eric Anson), the gay companion of Robert; and Sylvan (Jack Neubeck), who is sweet on Olive and no doubt has a fondness for astringent wines.
All are popular veterans of the Tucson theater scene, carrying their roles responsibly and getting all their laughs. Each develops an identifiable character and keeps up the energy that builds as Olive becomes more taken by the unseen figure in her full-length framed mirror at the edge of the stage.
This spooky fantasy gets the mundane name “Howard,” but his presence is announced by the ghostly lights and eerie sounds you would expect from a spirit with a more fearsome handle. Howard never speaks, however. We come to “know” him through the comments of others.
Plot-wise, there isn’t a lot happening. Mostly the others are drawn to Olive’s apartment because of some past connection to Howard. There aren’t any labyrinthine trails to follow, no red herrings to dismiss.
The real fun is just in catching all the jokes, which are pretty good, filled with Busch’s over-the-top attitudes whetted by that New York edge. Exactly the kind of humor Classen can deliver so well.
“Olive and the Bitter Herbs” continues through April 27 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, plus a 4 p.m. matinee Saturday, April 26, at Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. First Ave.
All tickets are $28, group discounts available. For details and reservations, 520-882-9721, or visit www.invisibletheatre.com