Sometimes, a night out at the theatre doesn’t need to make you ask difficult questions, think heavy thoughts, or get teary-eyed.
Sometimes, you just need a good laugh. And sometimes, you’ll laugh so much you’ll get teary-eyed anyway.
So it is with the Purple Rose Theatre’s newest show, Diva Royale, a world premiere by recent Emmy Award-winner and Chelsea-native Jeff Daniels. Before I even saw the show, I was intrigued by the premise: three suburban stay-at-home moms from the Midwest traveling to New York City on a whim to see their favorite singer, Celine Dion, perform. Throw in thievery, drag queens, and maybe a Jewish angel on top of that, and you’ve got yourself a doozy of a story. It sounded rather silly and sentimental to me, and so I wasn’t prepared for the hilarity that ensued.
Jeff Daniels has long been lauded, rightfully, for his amazing range as an actor, and his plays occupy a similarly wide scope. For example, his last play, Flint, was gut-wrenching in its drama and pain, examining the political, racial and class-related events leading up to the Flint water crisis. Daniels’ script for Diva Royale doesn’t try too hard to be funny, nor does it present a situation that is so completely inconceivable that it’s funny. What Daniels does brilliantly is heighten a situation that maybe most of us can relate to: seeing how far you will go to experience something or someone you are obsessed with. That’s all he does—heighten the stakes, plop three (and sometimes four) very believable characters into a less-believable but real situation, and let the comedy happen.
Three midwestern housewives run amok in NYC
His witty, pitch-perfect script would probably stand on its own if it were being rendered by much lesser actors, but in true Purple Rose fashion, the four-person cast never hits a wrong note, just the right amount of over-the-top. Rhiannon Ragland, Kate Thomsen, and Kristin Shields play the three housewives to perfection, each with her own hilarious traits, and Rusty Mewha nimbly assumes the roles of all the necessary male characters in the show, particularly memorable in Shields’ character’s fantasy sequence as Jack from Titanic.
The overblown physicality of the play’s best bits are as funny as they are impressive. Each of the actors has several opportunities to make us laugh and wow us at the same time—be on the lookout for Ragland’s facial expressions when eating gefilte fish, discussing opening a pickle jar, and man boobs. Thomsen’s exquisitely manic hand gestures relating to withdrawal from, well, let’s just say something unusual, made my face hurt from all the laughing. Shields, heartwarming and snort-laugh-inducing as the sunniest and perhaps most naively hopeful of the women, has several wonderful moments with the terrific Mewha—look for costume and physical comedy hilarity involving a Christmas onesie and Mewha’s… shall we say, more feminine side.
Poking fun at people’s obsessions
Director Guy Sanville always shepherds projects with a light but steady guiding hand and this one must have been particularly tricky to get all of the humor right. The results he gets with this show is a testament to just how keen and detail-oriented his eye is. Gary Ciarkowski’s set, Robert W. Hubbard’s projections, Shelby Newport’s costumes, Danna Segrest’s props, Tom Whalen’s sound, and Dana L. White’s lights are completely, seamlessly of this crazy world that Daniels has created, and subtly but surely highlight what we need to pay attention to at any given moment.
The wonderful thing about what Daniels has accomplished with Diva Royale is that the play manages to both poke good-natured fun at people whose obsessions with things lead them into trouble, while also celebrating the bonds between people who love celebrities, music, movies, anything with their whole heart, no matter what lies in store for them because of that love. Diva Royale doesn’t make you feel superior to these women, it makes you relate to them, feel empathy for them when things go awry, and cheer them on when they are triumphant. And, really, isn’t that what the world needs more of now?
Diva Royale runs at the Purple Rose Theatre from through December 29th. For tickets and more information, visit purplerosetheatre.org.