What’s on in Eugene? REVIEW: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Very Little Theatre

Michael P. Watkins as Lawrence Jameson, Tara Wibrew as Christine Colgate, Tom Wilson as Freddy Benson and Shannon Coltrane as Jolene. Photo by Rich Scheeland

When I walked in Saturday night for the Very Little Theatre’s current show, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, I knew three things:

• Chris Pinto directed Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Pinto’s both good at and enjoys (based solely on the evidence of years of watching plays, not on any question I’ve put to him) directing farces.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was a 1988 movie, which I haven’t yet seen.

• Eugene actor and cartoonist Dan Pegoda told me on Friday when we randomly ran into each other that he saw Scoundrels Thursday night, and that Tom Wilson was absolutely great. Pegoda’s one of the best actors in Eugene, so his recommendation spurred me to get tickets.

During the show, I laughed so hard I about fell into the aisle – and if I hadn’t taken allergy medication, I’m sure I would have had an asthma attack from all of the laughter. Pegoda was accurate in his praise of Wilson, whose inspired, high-energy, alarmingly enjoyable performance as the reprehensible Freddy should win some kind of Eugene physical comedy prize – that “All About Ruprecht” number … my goodness (just about as sexually explicit as the puppets during Avenue Q, but with fewer willing partners).

One of those less than thrilled partners during “Ruprecht” is Jolene Oakes, played with a monstrous wig and a game spirit by Shannon Coltrane. In her big number, “Oklahoma?”, Coltrane (Kate Monster in Lord Leebrick’s Avenue Q last fall) belts out a rip-roaring pile-up of clichés about that particular state with boot-stomping panache. One line is so outrageously funny that it was hard to hear the rest of the song because I was laughing so hard.

I was only pleased when lights came up for intermission because I needed to rehydrate after all of the giggling, chortling and outright belly laughing.

Usually, the reviewers in town don’t talk too much to one another during plays – at least, not about play we’re seeing. After all, we don’t want the directors or actors overhearing us, and we don’t want to influence each other’s reviews. But we have all recently been to opening weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (my reviews for MyEugene are here, and for Oregon ArtsWatch here), and when we’re down in Ashland, we do tend to get more friendly than we usually are in town. So I chatted with the daily paper’s reviewer at intermission, and we ended up talking about Jeffrey Lane’s book for this play – and its, um, language.

She said that she would probably need to include a bit of a warning about said language in her review (not up yet – I’ll link when it is). I suppose that people often bring their kids or grandkids to the VLT – certainly, there were a couple of 7 or 8-year-olds there the night I went, so parents might want to know about the language, not to mention Wilson’s gasp-inducing sexual advances toward other characters. Me, well, I found the language refreshing. The plot concerns graft, sex, crime and quite a lot of situational comedy. Throw in a well-placed f-word or s-word, and you’ve got a much more real script. And judging from the barks of laughter around me, the language worked well for many people in the audience. (Sadly, a non-scatalogical joke about Omaha fell flat, so to speak – perhaps because only Midwesterners would get it? I did chuckle, but then, I’m from Kansas City.)

Michael P. Watkins as Lawrence Jameson and Tom Wilson as Freddy Benson, the two con men. Photo by Rich Scheeland

Laughing too hard to hear the next few lines (whether of song or book) also happened fairly often with Michael P. Watkins. Watkins, actor/singer/director/etc. who has nailed roles both tragic (Norman in The Dresser) and comic (Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Show), plays master con man Lawrence in a charming, ironic, amusing, somewhat vulnerable turn that only gets better after intermission (please, yes, “Ruffhousin Mit Shüffhausen” – dear god, yes). His sidekick Andre, played by Cottage Theatre veteran George Comstock, has a(n a)rousing number, “Like Zis/Like Zat” with the marvelous Jennifer Sellers as Muriel.

Another post-intermission strength is Tara Wibrew as Christine Colgate. To avoid plot spoilers for those who haven’t seen the movie (or who couldn’t predict from the script), I won’t say much more about Christine. Wibrew’s strong stage presence doesn’t quite upstage the guys but does give her a chance to show off her splendid singing chops. And props to VLT for having a six-musician orchestra onstage to time the songs correctly with the action.

Costumer Nancy Boyett must have had some fun with costumes for both the women and the men, and Michael Walker’s set design contains some lovely surprises (and it was fun to see Walker, who also assistant-directed along with Sharon Wetterling, in a couple of small, amusing roles onstage). Despite some occasionally stiff action and a few dropped lines (not from the three main characters, luckily), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is the play to see in Eugene for sheer enjoyment.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels runs through March 31, and tickets are available at 541-344-7751 (sadly, not online) or at the box office at 2350 Hilyard Street (kitty-corner to Sundance, the Beanery, Humble Bagel/Beagle, etc.) 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and one hour before each performance. Perhaps don’t take the young ones, or anyone who doesn’t like language, but see it if you can.

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