KPBS AIRDATE: December 3, 1997
“My Three Angels” is a holiday perennial for several very good reasons: it’s a little unpredictable, not too sentimental and often very funny. It’s not half as clever as the book Sam and Bella Spewack wrote for the musical “Kiss Me, Kate,” but then they were touched by genius: composer Cole Porter with inspiration from William Shakespeare. For this classic comedy, they were going it alone, but they scored a palpable hit in 1953, and annually ever since, especially in community theater.
This piece is based on a French play, which, not long ago, was adapted to the screen by David Mamet, in an unrecognizable version called “We’re No Angels.” The unlikely cherubs of the title are three convicts, murderers on loan from the Bastille, doing time in a French Guiana penal colony. They may have been convicted of murder, but here they only kill with kindness, turning a harrowing night into a pretty perfect Christmas for the family whose roof they happen to be fixing: the bumbling, hapless, overly honest and trusting Felix Ducotel and his long-suffering wife and love-sick daughter.
The three scammers manage to appropriate a Christmas tree and a plump holiday bird, they make the dinner, significantly increase sales in the general store run by the Ducotels, and deal ever-so-effectively, as only killers can, with monstrous and supercilious Uncle Henri and his visiting twit of a nephew. Not only that, but they arrange for a secret midnight love-tryst and restore hope and a future to a despairing family. Ahhh, they just don’t make criminals like they used to. Their world, they cheerfully remind us, is just like ours. The only difference is, they were caught.
The play is a hoot to watch, if it’s done well, and equally fun to perform, since the characters are drawn with such broad, colorful strokes.
At the Octad-One Playhouse, it’s a long evening. Two intermissions. Sluggish interactions. Uncertain line readings. Pokey pace.
Director Katherine Faulconer does the best she can with a rather amateurish cast. But there are a couple of standout performances which, like the angels of the title, rescue the proceedings from disaster. As the chief bamboozler, a former forger and embezzler, Joe Zilvinskis is superb, displaying the charming confidence of a professional prevaricator. And Jack Winans does a skillful turn as the horrible Henri, a gruff and commanding presence that Winans slips into like a well-worn pair of over-pressed pants. The rest are trying too hard, over the top or under the threshold of audibility.
But the scene is really stolen by the scenic design. Grossmont College’s Clark Mires has created a gorgeous grass-and bamboo bungalow, crammed with detail and opening off right into a lush tropical garden. It alone is worth the trip to Lakeside. The new Octad theater, by the way, now snuggles up to a coffee bar next door. Lakeside isn’t just for cowpokes any more.
Now, if you’re fixin’ to wrassle up a humdinger of a holiday for your herd of loved ones, consider giving a really dramatic present: Gift Tix, certificates available in multiples of $10 and redeemable at over 60 performing arts venues throughout San Diego county. Now that’s downright upliftin’. Yee-ha!
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.