Dysfunction junctions

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  August 20, 2008

The cast effortlessly handles Spelling Bee’s mix of spontaneity, wit, and piquancy, moving through Dan Knechtges’s oft-tongue-in-cheek dance numbers with goofy vitality. As Mitch Mahoney, the dreadlocked parolee doing community service as a “comfort counselor” offering hugs and juice boxes to the losers, Demond Green reveals fine pipes — and he can hold a note longer than some of the spelling words. Molly Ephraim, of the slumped shoulders and sweet voice, is a winsome Olive Ostrovsky. Eric Peterson supplies Barfee with the right mix of arrogance and dejection. Emy Baysic is all perky defiance as the over-programmed Asian prodigy. And Hannah Delmonte, spelling her words in both English and ASL, is a cocky yet crumbling Logainne. Clifton Guterman’s Leaf is as adorably dazed as Michael Mastro’s assistant principal is just barely buttoned up. Sally Wilfert, convincing as the nostalgic former champ running the event, professes to have a lot of “favorite moments of the bee.” I’m with her.

Across the known universe from Putnam County is the locale of The Goatwoman of Corvis County, the world premiere of which inaugurates Shakespeare & Company’s new 180-seat Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, the cherry atop the sundae of the troupe’s just-completed $7.5 million Production and Performing Arts Center. Christine Whitley, author of the play, is a designated Linklater voice teacher and former company member — which is the only explanation for the worthy Shakespeareans’ not only taking on this lurid exercise in dysfunctional-family drama set in the sticks outside Nashville (or as the natives pronounce it, “Nashvl”) but also giving it a bang-up production anchored by Off Broadway darling Keira Naughton. Suffice to say that Robert Walsh’s qualifications as director include his also being a skilled orchestrator of stage combat and his having played the title role in Titus Andronicus.

Okay, no one winds up limbless in The Goatwoman of Corvis County. But this overwrought and improbable play makes Sam Shepard’s The Curse of the Starving Class look like Masterpiece Theatre. Title character Charlotte is a thirtysomething cracker beauty known for her mysterious ability to heal sick goats. The animals’ bleating can be heard in the barn beneath the hayloft apartment where Charlotte ricochets between flirtatiousness and dish-banging snit while playing referee between her 16-year-old son, David, and her fifth husband, volatile redneck Randy, with whom she shares an incriminating SECRET that I had figured out before intermission. That didn’t entirely eliminate suspense, however. When Randy deliberately broke David’s leg and Charlotte gave herself a complete makeover before climbing into the pick-up to accompany the poor kid to the hospital, I did wonder what grim violence and neglect was in store for act two.

Charlotte has problems other than trying to keep Randy from killing David, a rumpled, sullen, yet sympathetic lad who has only recently come to live with his mother. Given her reputation as the local goat whisperer, she had been asked to man a consignment shop whose proceeds support an animal charity. But said proceeds have gone missing — actually they’ve gone into Charlotte’s walk-in closet, where she spends a lot of time talking to her mirror — and she’s being threatened with embezzlement charges. Randy, who owns a small construction company and is the son of the sheriff, refuses to help solve the problem, so an inexperienced young lawyer has been dropped into the familial can of worms.

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