REVIEW: Brilliant Performances are the McGuffin in Centre Stage’s ‘Red Herring’ 

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Matt Reece in “Red Herring.” Photo by Wallace Krebbs Photography

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

Nuclear secrets, espionage, a murder and love conspire for a delectable evening of hilarity and chaos in Centre Stage’s period dramedy “Red Herring.”

Combing the tropes of noir detective stories, Hitchcock films and spy novels, Michael Hollinger’s farce is set in the 1950s McCarthy era. Commies are lurking everywhere, “I Love Lucy” is on the television, and love is in the air every night of the week.

Like the more clever and wiser “The 39 Steps,” this spoof has a small cast (six) who play some 18 different roles.

As the tough, hard-boiled cop Maggie Pelletier Kelly Scanlon-Davis is the common link who steadfastly ties the tale together. As the only actor immersed into a single role, she is able to heavily invest in this steely part with agency and depth. Maggie is trying to solve a murder, while her gumshoe lover, FBI Agent Frank Keller (an enterprising Daniel Wilkie) is trying to break a spy ring.

And there’s James Appel (Ben Nicholas), who is in love with Lynn McCarthy, (Morgan Voke-Thomason), the fictional daughter of Senator Joe McCarthy. And when James reveals to her that he is a spy for the Russians, Lynn (obviously indoctrinated by her dad), begins hysterically yelling “Commie! Commie!” but her affection wins over, and she quickly agrees to help him complete his final mission so they can honeymoon in Havana. From his numbskull delicacy to her nervous ninny spiel, the scenes between Nicholas and Voke-Thomason provide the most genuine chemistry and fresh, organic depth and comic relief in this play. Bravo!

Add to the mix, a pair of fierce actors who lend gravitas and seasoned skills to the already over-the-top proceedings. As the long-suffering widow and landlord Mrs. Kravitz, Tiffany Nave-Stewart is so delightful and entertaining that you almost forget she is acting. She’s bold, original and a fully-animated and nuanced force in every single role here.

Veteran performer Matt Reece dominates here as her lover Russian defector Andrei Borchevsky, among other equally-fleshed eccentric and oddball characters. Wedged between Albert Einstein and Harpo Marx, Reece embraces a passive-aggressive, vaudeville aesthetic that squeals quiet subtleties and impeccable physicality. And he handily steals the show in one wacky dance solo: a bizarre amalgam of iconic choreography steps including Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” zombie haunt.

Jessica Eckenrod, Greenville songstress and Centre Stage Production Manager, makes a noble directing debut, deftly squeezing the comedy gags in every scene in this briskly-paced thriller. She envelopes us into the ‘50s  with by underscoring some scenes with period music, and peppering the production with sound and video bites of the era (McCarthy, Ike, etc.) and even has the actors and stage crew in quirky shadow characters during the scene transitions.

Stephanie Underwood is Stage Manager for “Red Herring.” Eckenrod and Rick Connor designed the set. Ms. Nave is costume designer, Channin Pettit is props designer and Kevin Frazier designed the lighting.

“Red Herring” continues through May 26, Thurs. – Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at Centre Stage, 501 River St. in Greenville. Call the box office at (864) 233-6733 or visit http://www.centrestage.org.

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