Author: MacKillop, James
Date published: September 21, 2011
Encore Productions lines up laughs for The Queen of Bingo
Not so long ago or far away, bingo was once highly controversial. Really. In the state of Michigan during your reporter's childhood, there were repeated attempts, one successful, to outlaw the low-stakes board game. These were widely seen as vindictive assaults from Protestant small towns, well-represented in the legislature, against Catholic cities. Bingo, we knew, was a reliable means for fund-raising for many parishes, especially in working-class neighborhoods. Fortunately for the probingo forces, they were joined by fraternal and veterans' organizations, people with better access to advertising agencies. Together they came up with the winning campaign slogan: "Legalize Bingo! Keep Grandma Off the Streets."
A certain sense of lingering defensiveness clings to Jeanne Michels and Phyllis Murphy's The Queen of Bingo, which Encore Presentations just opened at Jamesville's Glen Loch restaurant. The audience for live theater does not overlap much with the millions of bingo players. There must have been a few present, however, given the riotous laughter in parts of the room for such in-jokes as "I-16," G-47" and "early bird special." The two sibling players in Queen, tall, thin Sis (Betsy York) and shorter, wide-bodied Babe (Marguerite Beebe), are unfashionably dressed and look as though they might have enjoyed Menopause: The Musical. Sometimes we may laugh at them, or with them as well, but the point of view shaped by director William Edward White is that we should respect them. Attention must be paid.
The scene is the basement of St. Joseph's Church, somewhere in blue collar Chicago. It could serve as a set for Nunsense, if it were not for the piping in of classic polka music like "Roll Out the Barrel" and "She's Too Fat for Me." Like professionals arriving for work, Sis and Babe come prepared with their equipment: the daubers, the magnetic chips and the good luck charms. Making eye contact with audience members, they pretend to greet the other regulars in the hall and make cutting remarks about those out of earshot, like the woman who needs two chairs to accommodate her avoirdupois.
While Sis and Babe deliver more than 80 percent of the dialogue, they are not alone at St. Joseph's. Constantly interrupting is the voice-of-doom caller (director White), who can never be ignored. While sometimes plagued with low comedy puns, such as when boosters for the parish teams are urged to become "athletic supporters," the caller's numbers often make ironic, Pinter-like commentary on the sisters' dialogue.
A director's initiative changes the four characters. While the program calls for a "Father Mac," which sounds like a clergyman with a Gaelic surname, we have instead Reverend Larry, whose wavy black wig suggests he might have been invited over from the Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church in another part of town. Reliable funnyman Stephfond Brunson appears as Reverend Larry. His lines may or may not be improvised departures from the script, but larcenous Reverend Larry cannot enter upon a scene without stealing it.
Sis and Babe's devotion to bingo is, we learn, partially driven by the emptiness elsewhere in their lives. Neither is married, and both lack prospects. Sis shrugs this off, saying she'd rather play bingo than begin a new relationship. Both are weary of money woes and fear aging when retirement brings more blues than frivolity.
Although Sis can take a more mature, parenting tone than Babe, there is no squabbling between the two to raise tension. What divides them, we learn, is how needfully they play the game. In a surprising echo of the two coaches in Richard Dresser's baseball comedy-drama Rounding Third, Sis is just as happy to keep daubing her cards and enjoy the fellowship. But Babe obsesses about winning.
This is not her only mania. Babe's comments had been more caustic than Sis's from the beginning of the action, but at this point Queen of Bingo takes a darker turn. Beneath Babe's craving for victory lies a diminished sense of self driven by the shame of her weight. Most pointedly, she's bulging out of her size 16 dresses and screams that she refuses to submit to purchasing a size 18. "I'd rather fly to Hawaii and wear a muumuu all day," she wails, a pointed reversal of the conventional attitude toward the island paradise state. So what numbers will the cheery "Alrighty-dighty" caller be coming up with then?
Encore's current production reunites the principals who earlier appeared in White-directed performances for Fulton Community Theatre. Both York and Beebe have become well-grounded in their characters and speak their lines as if they had lived them. What is different from Fulton is that Marguerite Beebe suffered an ankle injury, delaying the scheduled Sept. 9 opening. Perhaps we should retire that "Break a leg!" cheer. Babe's walking with a cane seems no violation of her persona, but we cannot know if the limp affects verbal timing.
First performed in 1993, the text for The Queen of Bingo allows for multiple interpretations. On cruise ships it becomes a blue collar gagfest. When it was produced 15 years ago by the now-defunct Contemporary Theatre of Syracuse, director Peter Moller mined the dark currents of gambling. Despite the many laughs in this production toward the beginning, anxiety seems to have the edge over mirth.