Villanova Gives Noir a Nod: RED HERRING

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

DEFINITION: Red herring 1) a logical fallacy that misleads or detracts from the actual issue. 2) a literary device that leads readers or characters towards a false conclusion, often used in mystery or detective fiction.

First up for the Villanova Theater’s 2013-2014 season is RED HERRING, an affectionate satire of film noir by Villanova Assistant Professor, and local playwright, Michael Hollinger. The show runs at Vasey Hall from October 1st thru the 13th, with performances on Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8, and Sundays at 2. Directed by Harriet Power (another Villanova professor), the production deals with three love stories, a murder mystery and (hey, why not) a nuclear espionage plot. It’s 1952, America’s “age of innocence” is in full swing—but so is the Cold War. And Joe McCarthy is seeing “Red” everywhere. Amidst this backdrop, the lives of three couples converge in an exceedingly clever comedy about marriage—and “other explosive devices.”

RED HERRING made its world premiere at the Arden Theatre in Old City in 2000 and has had several productions around the country since then—as well as a run in Paris. Hollinger has been lauded as one of America’s brightest new comic voices, and is rapidly becoming one of the most produced playwrights in the country. Director Power was one of the original readers of RED HERRING in its development phase and admits she has long had it on her “must direct list.”

The play is set in Boston and follows noir-ish detective Maggie Pelletier (Victoria Rose Bonito) as she tries to solve a waterfront murder case. Her boyfriend, “G-man” Frank Keller (Seth Thomas Schmitt-Hall), is attempting to discover the origins of a Russian spy ring—eventually their two cases collide. Along the way they encounter a sleazy landlady (Julie George-Carlson) who’s in love with Andrei, a mysterious Russian “fisherman” (Raymond Saraceni) and rescue the daughter of Joe McCarthy (Sophia Barrett), who happens to be engaged to a physicist (Brendan Farrell) giving secrets about the H-bomb to the Russians.

Ms. Power has a real gift for this type of high energy farce and her detailed directorial touches are evident throughout. Never heavy-handed, it’s great fun to watch as she puts her talented cast through their paces and keeps the action moving with a cinematic flow. A mix of grad students, undergrads and faculty, each of them inhabits their characters perfectly. All but Ms. Bonito play multiple roles, switching accents as quickly as they switch costumes. You forget—until curtain call—that there are only six actors onstage. There were some inconsistencies with the “Southie” Boston accent (think the “Hopper” commercials), but on a whole the cast was quite adept. They handle the intricate plot twists with great dexterity and deliver the laughs. The crowd on Friday evening included several foreign exchange students who were having a wonderful time.

The technical support provided by Villanova’s team was terrific. James F. Pyne designed a set that reconfigures on a dime as the story moves from locale to locale—with three rolling dock units that also serve as beds on occasion. Winslow Homer’s painting The Herring Net also appears as a billboard (and a plot device), and the scenic department has reproduced it perfectly along the upper part of the back wall. The lower part is a series of warehouse-like doors that facilitate entrances of actors and set pieces. Jerold R. Forsyth’s lighting takes the viewer to the Boston docks and elsewhere, while John Stovicek’s soundscape creates the right “gumshoe” mood. Finally, Marla Jurglanis’ wizardry brings the 50s fashions to life and Sharri Jerue has created terrific props to add to the authenticity and period look.

RED HERRING is several things. It’s a laugh-filled, loving homage to those hard-boiled detective stories of the past; it’s a tongue-in-cheek look at 1950s America; it’s also a riff on classical mistaken identities comedies. But, mostly, it is a tribute to love, the complexities of attraction, and marriage (listen for Andrei’s great speech about a dory). I recommend you check it out—and if you’re lucky enough to have a partner in life, make it a date night.

By Michael Hollinger
Directed by Harriet Power
October 1st—13th, 2013
Villanova Theatre—Vasey Hall
800 Lancaster Avenue (at Ithan Ave.)
Villanova, PA 19085


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