Players by the Sea opened playwright Charles Busch’s New York comedy, “Olive and the Bitter Herbs.” It will be on stage in Jacksonville Beach until December 15. Call 249-0289 for information or reservations or visit www.playersbythesea.org.
The play is set in the aging Manhattan apartment of Olive, an aging actress who has not been in demand for a long time. Her one claim to fame is her appearance many years ago as the “Gimme the Sausage” lady in a well-known TV commercial. Her only friend in the world is Wendy, a kindly young lady who visits often to look after her. Olive despises her neighbors who are two very gay guys but Wendy convinces her that she should try to become friends with them. One other person in Olive’s life is Sylvan, retired and well-to do, whose daughter is the president of the co-op board, and at odds with Olive.
Two major events drive this play. The first is a Passover Seder dinner Olive is persuaded to hold for her new friends. The ritual occasion is a hilarious episode in the play. The second compelling event that binds this group together is the appearance of a ghost in a wall mirror in Olive’s living room . The reported apparition leads her friends to search for connections with the ghost.
What is the nitty-gitty behind this play? Well, perhaps it would be best to learn more about Playwright Busch. Notice the titles of his plays that have been on North Florida Stages over the years, and they will give you an idea of what to expect in “Olive.” Busch’s most conventional play, “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” was nominated for a Tony in 2001, and was performed at ABET a couple of years ago. Players did “Psycho Beach Party” several years ago. The now disbanded First Coast Theatre performed “Die Mommie Die” at Club Metro and some years ago the Dual Critics saw “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” staged in a bar in Crescent Beach. Well you get the idea, you can expect something very quirky with this very funny show, and yes, with some language and sexual allusions.
“Olive” opened Off-Broadway in 2011, and the production at Players is the very first local production anywhere in the world. This was possible as Executive Director Joe Schwarz saw it in New York, and Mr. Friendly Persuasion immediately asked for the rights and got them.
Stephen Pigman is directing for the first time at Players. He is the Executive Director of the Flagler Playhouse in Flagler County and has previously directed shows for Limelight Theatre in St. Augustine. Pigman’s direction has captured the rhythm and humor of ‘”Olive,” and he keeps things lively with animated blocking.
Jean Lijoi, In the demanding role of Olive, is on stage for the entire show. A native of New York , she brings the perfect accent to this role, and her many years of theatre experience are evident in her wonderful portrayal of the queen of mean Olive. Yes, she is a real harridan and admits it when she says “I’m unlovable and I can give you references.” In real life, Ms. Lijoi is an artist and you can see her paintings displayed at Players during this show.
Award Actress Kasi Walters stepped into the role of Wendy just two weeks before it opened and is marvelous. Need an actress who can do an accent? Call on Kasi who was British perfect in “Talking Heads” and nails the New York accent to perfection. Ms. Walters has an extraordinary mini-monologue in Act II, that drew appreciative applause from the audience.
Jason Collins and Michael Smithgall are two well-known local actors, who are constantly in demand on local stages. They are noted for their many dramatic roles but in “Olive,” they are two over the top gay lovers, and absolutely hilarious as Olive’s neighbors.
Rounding out the cast is award winning actor Mark Wright, who plays Sylvan, a three-time widowed senior ; his wives all died of natural causes. Apparently a man of eclectic tastes, he is attracted to the caustic Olive.
Production Manger and Set Designer Brian Grant’s set captures the essence of an older New York apartment and he has even gone the extra mile. If you sit in the center or left of center you can peak into the kitchen which he has fully equipped with a stove and cabinets. Now, that is what we call attention to detail. Mr. Grant is spreading his theatre wings even more as Assistant Director of this production.
When you enter the main stage auditorium for this show, you may think you are in the wrong place because you come face to face with ceiling to floor material that you are going to want to call a new curtain. Well in theatre lingo, it is a grand drape! With the new drape, perhaps we can revive a theatre tradition that seems to have faded away with the years, which is applauding the set when the curtain opens. (That is, if deserved, which is for you to decide). We’ve gotten away from this mainly because many theatres today have an open stage and you have ample opportunity to pursue the set while waiting for the show to begin. So when you go see “Olive and the Bitter Herbs,” restart an old tradition when the curtain opens and applaud!
Others contributing to the success of this show include Dana Marie Ferger as costumer; she provided Olive with a colorful kaftan for the opening scene that perfectly portrayed her eccentricity. Caroline Lee is the tribal advisor and consultant for the details of the Seder scene. Gayle Featheringill is stage manager, while Jim Wiggins as technical director designed the lights. And longtime Players’ supporter and actor Charlie White delighted the crowd in a cameo role.