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Theater review: Screen Plays' 'The Cat's Meow' 

Hollywood has plenty of glittering folklore and tabloid-worthy stories that provide a brief glimpse into the dramatic past of the elite. Few, though, maintain the mystery of one particular November weekend in 1924. Through February 26, Screenplays -- a community theater company that specializes in producing the Golden Age of Hollywood onstage -- presents a hypothetical tale based on true events in "The Cat's Meow."

The plot begins when 13 passengers board newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst's yacht, "The Oneida." The guests have been invited for a weekend cruise to celebrate the birthday of Thomas Ince, who invented the modern concept of movie studios and was the "Father of the Western." Hearst's longtime mistress, Marion Davies, plays hostess and unexpectedly finds herself entangled in a love triangle with Hearst and Charlie Chaplin, who's been in love with Davies for some time. Other passengers include a novelist, a gossip columnist, several young actresses, a doctor and his wife, and several of Hearst's business colleagues. On "The Oneida," there's no hint of Prohibition, and champagne flows freely. Everyone knows The Charleston. Short hair and fringe are in, and sexual promiscuity is encouraged, as evidenced by every "It Girl."

Steven Peros wrote "The Cat's Meow" for the stage, and later reworked a screenplay for the 2002 film starring Kirsten Dunst as Davies, Ed Herrmann as Hearst, and Eddie Izzard as Chaplin. The stage version clocks in at just a little more than two hours, which means the show requires a cast who can keep the audience's attention.

Director Lindsay Warren Baker, an opera instructor and dramatic coach at Eastman School of Music who has many regional and national credits to her name, is firmly at the helm of "The Cat's Meow" and guides her cast of 14 to create a piece that never feels too dry. She's chosen to feature several new faces in the cast, which helps move away from the threat of the same actors playing the same character in different shows (an all-too-common occurrence in community theater). Most importantly, the cast retains command of the audience's attention by driving the show's plot forward. The story becomes all encompassing within minutes.

Part of the initial hook can be credited to musical director Jacob Stebly. Throughout the show, he plays piano and sings period tunes, beginning with an enjoyable rendition of the 1929 song "Talking Picture of You." Then Judie D'Ambrosio (as novelist Elinor Glyn) appears in the balcony, serving as a narrator of sorts, almost as though it were a memoir. D'Ambrosio is a consummate performer, with perfectly delivered one-line pans and nuanced emotion. Peter J. Doyle -- a commanding, convincing presence in each role he takes on -- portrays the controlling Hearst.

Gregory Ludek (Ince) and ShawndaUrie (actress Margaret Livingston) have the newest affair onboard the boat, as evidenced by a salacious scene that both perform quite handily. Cara D'Emanuele (Louella "Dolly" Parsons) channels just the right amount of nerves and naiveté with her depiction of the ambitious gossip columnist -- her character is at once annoying and endearing, a sign of a truly skillful actor.

As Hearst's lover Marion Davies, Marcy J. Savastano shines; her character work on stage cannot be rivaled. From her posture to her tone of voice, everything about Savastano works in this role. Opposite her is Sean Smith (Charlie Chaplin), another young local actor who masters palpable emotion on stage. Savastano is more fluid during musical scenes, but Smith's commitment to his character throughout the show is impressive.

Because the entire production takes place on Hearst's yacht, the Cabaret Hall at the Lyric Theatre couldn't be more fitting for the set design by Alexandra Herryman. The actors appear in the balcony during observation deck scenes, and audience members are tucked away in and near alcoves (which used to be Sunday School rooms for different grade levels when the Lyric was a church). An additional stage platform has been built out for the show, creating a free-flow set that makes settings interchangeable. Furniture and props are kept simple; while costumes by Shelly Stam -- especially those worn by the Hollywood starlets -- are flashy and sparkling beneath the stage lights. Hair and makeup design by Mary Megan Bringley, likewise, is elaborate, playing up the best of 1920's trends like finger waves, bobs, and headbands.

While "The Cat's Meow" would be entertaining to enjoy with friends, it's perplexing that a reserved table in the Cabaret Hall costs $15 to $20 in addition to individual ticket cost, especially since the tables offer the same plastic folding chairs as general seating. Concessions are cash-only, another tip for potential attendees, but parking is free (and plentiful) in a lot across the street and on the adjacent Prince Street as well.

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