Monday, February 28, 2011

Frigid ’11: Scarlet Woman

If you can explain the plot of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, you’re way ahead of Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe. Frankly, he should have won an Oscar just for the conviction of his fast-talking non-explanation at the film’s climax that makes absolutely no sense, but is all kinds of awesome. As if the noir saga of the Sternwood family were not convoluted enough, Matthew Wells adds generous helpings of Murder My Sweet, Out of the Past, and The Brasher Doubloon in his two-femme fatale film noir mash-up Scarlet Woman, which is currently running as part of the 2011 Frigid Festival of easily manageable stage productions clocking in at about an hour’s running time.

A young woman is out to find her father’s killer. Good luck keeping her name straight. It will change many times over the course of an hour. Naturally, it turns out the old man had a secret past and she might not even be who she thinks she is. Role reversals are the order of the day, as Megan Hill and Candy Simmons tackle about a dozen or so parts interchangeably (including a couple of guys), all with familiar names for classic noir cineastes.

Defying coherent plot summary, Scarlet affectionately purees the hardboiled genre with some wickedly clever dialogue. Despite throwing in everything including the kitchen sink, Wells makes the pieces fit together surprisingly well. Effectively staged by Rob O’Neill, the production makes the most of its simple sets and shadowy backlit backdrop to create the appropriate atmosphere of perpetual twilight.

Hill and Simmons are a blast to watch as whoever they might be at a given moment: Carmen Sternwood, Kathie Moffat, take your pick. In fact, it is hard to imagine sustaining the energy they bring past the Frigid-mandated one hour mark. It is also hard to think up any further crazy plot points they could possibly throw at the audience.

Scarlet has much the same appeal as the recently closed Broadway hit The 39 Steps, but at fraction of the ticket cost and about half the investment of time. A thoroughly entertaining stage romp, Scarlet is a clear highlight of this year’s Frigid Fest. It runs again this Tuesday (3/1), Wednesday (3/2), and Saturday (3/5) at the Kraine Theater.

(Photo: Anna Dvorak)