Lela (Natalie Young) remains upbeat despite the intrusions of her life by a man
(Garret Storms) in the darkly-comic drama ‘Lela & Co.’ (Photo courtesy Karen Almond)

The dark vaudeville of ‘Lela & Co.’ Plus, DTC revisits the Bard

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
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The topic of Lela & Co. is harrowing, so playwright Cordelia Lynn’s decision to cast her play as a comedy is a brilliant and risky one. Presented as a kind of vaudeville — the set is bathed in a pink gel and dominated by a faux crescent moon that suggests a gooily romantic trifle — the central character Lela (Natalie Young) flounces around in a tutu, willingly recounting her journey from child to widow as an innocent, buoyant, sunny disposition, even as she is visited with a parade of horribles.

Lela tells her story from (I imagine) age 10 until her mid-teens, during which period she is abused by her father, then her brother-in-law, then husband and finally a soldier (all played by Garret Storms). Lela’s endurance and resolve serve as the emotional pulse of the play, a testament to what she, and all women, are capable of.

Young strikes the ideal note of hopefulness and damage. Her Lela is neither a doormat nor a cipher but an avatar of a human spirit that can’t be crushed. Storms recently played Prior Walter in Uptown Players’ Angels in America, but his role here (actually, multiple role) is closer in personality to another Angels character, Mr. Lies — the embodiment of deception, id, doubt and baser instincts. He slithers around the stage in a gaudy sharkskin suit, smiling vacantly even as he commits unspeakable acts — a monument to how the world often ignores the worst in it.

The playbill notes that Lela & Co. is “based on a true story,” and that’s sort of accurate; with her ethnically neutral name and lack of identifiable era or country, it feels like a story that has been told countless times by innumerable women in endless warzones who survived to bear witness. That’s both its horror and its message of salvation.

The Dallas Theater Center is back to Shakespeare, this time in one of the Bard’s comic fantasies, Twelfth Night — a cross-dressing bauble about shipwrecks, mistaken identities and romantic entanglements that probably seemed pretty lame 400 years ago. Its success depends largely on its execution and the good will it can generate.

DTC’s production splits that baby. While director Kevin Moriarty imbues the production with lightness, turning it into a beachside hippie party, the follow-through doesn’t always work. Once again (as with All the Way and The Great Society) the action is obscured by an unnecessary downstage fixture; the choice (also once again) to recast a role written as a male and put Liz Mikel in it (this time as Sir Toby Belch; she’s previously been both Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol and Matthew Brady in Inherit the Wind) feels like misguided gimmickry. With the setting, Sir Toby would be perfectly played as a Wooderson-esque stoner, a quality Mikel does not project. And the musical interludes seem hesitant; the score could use more calypso influences, more vigor.

Then again, Blake Hackler’s fussy dweeb (as Andrew Aguecheek) and Alex Organ’s hilarious monologue as the stuffy and deluded Malvolio generate such hearty belly laughs that you can overlook other missed opportunities. Moriarty’s interpretation of the queer relationship between Sebastian (Chris Ramirez) and Antonio (Ace Anderson) adds a poignant button on the festivities. And at 100 minutes, it’s perfect as a beach read.