If you’re a fan of farce, politically incorrect humor, corny jokes, and puns, then Paul Freed’s play “Death by Chocolate” could be just the treat for you. Stage West’s production of his comedy directed by Michelle Root and featuring a cast of eleven, if you don’t count the actor killed off in the opening scene, had the audience alternately chuckling quietly, laughing out loud and groaning at the one-liners and puns. An example of a clever pun was Lady Riverdale’s comment to the spa manager, John Stone, when she exclaims, “You have some gall, Stone.”
Another inventive aspect of the play was the creative names for some of the characters; The secretary named Dyslexia, the chef named Edith Chiles, who kept saying “Bon Appetit” (a take-off on Julia Childs), and the devious cad, Ralph Deadwood.
The actor who really stole the show was Dan Hagan playing the part of Dick Simmering, an aerobics instructor channeling Richard Simmons. His physical comedy and mannerisms were over-the-top. The fact that he was overweight made it even funnier. Hagan really got into his character, even picking out the clothes for his costume; Developing the mannerisms and speech, the facial expressions and the physical actions. “I loved that Michelle (Director) gave me so much trust to make this character work. I kept doing new things throughout rehearsal and she kept telling me that she loved it. Her responses made me want to keep doing more,” Hagan comments.
The play was filled with irony. It takes place at a health resort, yet almost all the characters are carrying around quite a few extra pounds. The place has just been purchased by Lady Riverdale, who happens to own a company that manufactures chocolate candy; And the chef whips up dishes like liver pâté cooked in goose fat. Then there’s Nurse Anne who keeps popping Valium.
Mathew Root’s character, John Stone, had an abundance of funny lines, which he delivered in deadpan fashion. These included misremembering Dyslexia’s name and calling her Distemper, and other similar sounding names. He also had the habit of taking almost everything that the other characters said literally and even “breaking the fourth wall” when he spoke directly to the audience. Root has been acting for thirty years.
Like many of the other actors in the play, Root finds that the most satisfying aspect of acting is “The ability to entertain an audience and take them away from their everyday life for a little while. It is as close to playing make-believe as you can get as an adult,” he adds.
Jason Chase, who plays mystery writer and amateur sleuth Ed Parlor, has had a wide range of acting experience. As a teen, he toured with a church drama group throughout the United States, Jamaica, and the Bahamas performing skits. As an adult, he did a lot of Improv. Chase finds performing to be a cathartic experience. “Acting for me provides an escape from the real world and all the hurt and chaos that is going on. During my lowest times the theater, my castmates, and even the production staff have been there (for me),” remarks Chase.
The setting of the play is the 1980s and the costumes were on point and typical of that era’s fashions. From the women’s shoulder pads to the pastel shirts and white jacket worn by the resort manager. The set was expertly constructed and the stage was cleverly dressed, with attention to detail, from the pictures on the wall and the furniture to a unique feature, which I won’t disclose, so as not to give away any of the plot. In the lobby there were “mug shots” of the cast in costume and a poster, complete with yellow crime scene tape.
One of my few criticisms of the play is that there’s a fairly long blackout between the short opening scene and the first act. I thought at first that it was because the stage crew had to have time to switch sets. However, when the curtain opened, the set remained the same. I found the first few minutes of the play dragged a bit. Also, many of the one-liners went by so fast that it was hard to catch them all. Perhaps all of these features were written that way by the playwright. Once the play was into the latter half of the first scene and more characters were introduced, the action moved much more quickly.
There were some technical issues with the microphones cutting out from time to time. However, this didn’t throw the actors off. Most notable Beccy Porter, playing Lady Riverdale, projected very well and the audience had no problem hearing her lines. With thirty-five years of experience in theater, Ms. Porter takes these sorts of things in stride. “There are so many challenges! Finding my character, working with others, technical glitches and they are why I love theater,” she exclaims.
Dee Curran stepped away from behind the stage as a tech person to play the role of chef Edith Chiles. Ms. Curran has been acting since she was fifteen and has had the opportunity to play in several comedies. Her favorite role, so far, is her current one. Having a one-hour commute to work and then being at the theater almost every night for rehearsal can be challenging, but she says it’s worth it.
Of course, the key to a successful show is the director and Michelle Root brings years of experience to the job. In fact, you might say she’s a “triple threat.” Not only does she direct, but she also acts and has written several children’s plays. “As a director, you have to worry about everyone knowing their lines, everyone knowing where to go, the set, the costumes, the lighting, the sound; Everything,” states Ms. Root.
“Death by Chocolate” brought with it additional challenges. Because of Covid-19 all of Stage West’s shows have been performed on the large stage which meant that her cast had to use the small stage for rehearsals. They only had nine days to rehearse on the large stage, build the set, and work out all the technical aspects. In addition, several of the cast and crew came down with Coronavirus so some rehearsals had to be done via Zoom. “The challenges were all worth it. The cast has put on an amazing show and the audiences seem to really enjoy it,” Ms. Root concludes.
Being a fan of mysteries and broad comedy, I especially liked the twist at the end of the play that I didn’t see coming. One of the best things about the show was that you could overlook a few plot holes, enjoy the back and forth banter of the characters, the interplay and conflict between their diverse personalities, and experience two hours of non-stop laughter−something we all need these days.
There will be three more performances of “Death by Chocolate” on February 18th at 7:30 pm and February 19th & 20th at 2:00 pm. To purchase tickets call the box office at 352-683-5113, Tuesday – Saturday, 10 am – 2 pm or go to www.stagewestflorida.com. The theater is located at 8390 Forest Oaks Blvd. in Spring Hill.