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Review: Bare bones script hampers Blackfriars' 'Calendar Girls' 

click to enlarge From left to right, Mary Krickmire, Pam Feicht, Talya Meyerowitz, Maria Scipione, and Kim Upcraft star in Blackfriars Theatre's production of "Calendar Girls."

PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.

From left to right, Mary Krickmire, Pam Feicht, Talya Meyerowitz, Maria Scipione, and Kim Upcraft star in Blackfriars Theatre's production of "Calendar Girls."

Not everyone will be won over by a show that begins with a group of white women faking Tai Chi in unconvincing British accents, but “Calendar Girls” doesn’t care. This unabashed production playing through May 22 marks the end of this year’s Blackfriars Theatre season.

“Calendar Girls,” adapted for the stage from the 2003 British comedy film by the same name, is inspired by true events. After the death of Annie’s husband to leukemia, the middle-aged women in her Women’s Institute decide to use their yearly calendar to raise money in his honor. Their calendar usually features “spectacular views” along the lines of Yorkshire churches, but they realize they can make more money with a different type of spectacular view: They’ll pose nude for photographs. Not naked, as the show is quick to clarify, which would leave nothing to the imagination, but nude — using everyday objects like flowers and tea kettles to cover private parts.

Before getting to that, though, the play opens with several scenes depicting the antics of daily Women’s Institute life, including sitting through a lecture on broccoli, dressing in Victorian outfits for Christmas, and competing in a cake-baking contest.

It’s a bit of a slow start, although it’s lovely to see a community of older women laughing together onstage. Each of the six Women’s Institute characters is mostly defined by a quirk or two: the singer who feels most comfortable at the piano; the school teacher; the one who rode a Harley topless when she was 16. The cast members, led in a standout comedic performance by Pam Feicht as Chris, banter with ease and perform with a warm affection for each other.

The opening scenes also introduce Annie’s amiable, sunflower-loving, and otherwise forgettable husband John, who is diagnosed with cancer and then dies, inspiring the idea for the calendars. Not having seen the movie, at this point in the production I wondered why I was sitting in a theater watching this story rather than streaming the movie at home.
click to enlarge Mary Krickmire, left, and Pam Feicht in Blackfriars Theatre's production of "Calendar Girls." - PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • Mary Krickmire, left, and Pam Feicht in Blackfriars Theatre's production of "Calendar Girls."
Soon after, though, the show makes a compelling argument for putting the source material onstage when the women finally pose for the calendar. Thanks to the playful confidence of the actors, and skillful direction by Alexa Scott-Flaherty, the photo shoot scene is lively and dynamic, with some of the best theatricality Blackfriars has showcased all season.

Essentially, the audience watches the same thing over and over again: a makeshift curtain goes up, a woman undresses, the curtain goes down to reveal a prop covering her breasts, and the camera flashes. And yet each repetition feels distinctive and fresh, thanks to the humorous use of the mundane household prop covering her up, or each character’s delight at her own newfound brash behavior. The opening night audience ate it up, celebrating each woman’s reveal with thunderous applause and cheering.

Part of the magic of this sequence is that its infectious joy distracts from the underlying superficiality of the piece and the deeper questions it fails to address: Who are these women and why is posing nude important to them? Yes, they’re raising money in John’s memory for a hospital settee. Other than some new furniture, what’s really at stake here? Why are the women so eager to expose their body parts to strangers?

“Because it’s fun” would be a reasonable explanation for a less ambitious play, but there’s still a whole other act to go. Tim Firth, who co-wrote the screenplay and adapted it for the stage, tries to compensate for the lack of stakes in the first act with an excess of drama in the second act, as the calendars become a hit and the Women’s Institute gets showered in attention. Literally — the fan mail falls from the ceiling.
click to enlarge Nanette Elliott and Matt Ames in Blackfriars Theatre's production of "Calendar Girls." - PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • Nanette Elliott and Matt Ames in Blackfriars Theatre's production of "Calendar Girls."
Despite fun theatrical moments like this, the second act is overcrowded with attempts at character development that only muddle the story. New storylines are introduced and resolved before the audience has time to care — a cheating husband, a family death from breast cancer, a British town rivalry.

The most contrived plot development is a fight between Annie and Chris, in which Annie accuses Chris of letting the fame of their calendars get to her head. It’s not because Chris has been acting particularly stuck up, but because she chooses to join the rest of the Women’s Institute for a television shoot rather than help her husband at a business event. Mary Krickmire as Annie performs with overwhelming hurt, suggesting that her anger at Chris is really misplaced grief for her own deceased John. The script, though, expects audiences to view Chris’s choice to spend an afternoon with other women instead of her husband as conceited. She can only redeem herself by humbly admitting, “It’s John’s calendar, not mine.”

Perhaps that’s the trouble with the script. After spending over two hours with this community of women, their calendar is still about a man who has been dead and offstage most of the play. Similarly, the production as a whole is about a stunning theatrical sequence that’s over by intermission.

Katherine Varga is a freelance theater critic for CITY.
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