The Clue in the Old Birdbath | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Performing Arts Review

The Clue in the Old Birdbath


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe



Stage Left Theatre

I can't imagine a more fitting production for The Clue in the Old Birdbath, Sandra de Helen and Kate Kasten's 1984 musical send-up of the Nancy Drew mysteries, predictably filled with mysterious mansions, long-lost relatives, and a mad psychiatrist. This mini musical is perfect for the wide but shallow stage of Stage Left Theatre's storefront space, which suits the small-scale dance numbers and fight scenes and allows the cast to emphasize humor and synchronization over athleticism. It's also perfect for a cast whose forte is singing and nothing's-too-silly-or-sacred comedy. The writers reveal a keen wit as they poke fun at traditional male/female roles, but at times their play suffers from repetitive lyrics and heavy narration at the expense of action. Yet Stage Left makes it all go down easily by performing professionally but not too seriously.

With a refreshing lack of self-righteousness de Helen and Kasten make their points about past and present sexual mores without resorting to male bashing: in their play the women and men are equally silly, equally responsible for the games they play. The lead trio of teenage girlfriends--Tansy, Joe, and Bets, who have gone to the town where Tansy's mother died 13 years before--describe themselves in the same terms 1930s society used: Joe is mannish, Bets is plump and dimpled, and Tansy True, Nancy Drew's alter ago, is the picture of femininity, with platinum blond permed hair, snug-fitting knit dress, and T-strap heels--like Nancy, she's a role model and must be impeccably groomed and attractive to men. The three idolize Tansy's father, Carlson True, invariably labeled "world-famous criminal detective," and as true products of their era they're not above using their feminine wiles to trick guileless males. Hot on the trail of the crazed inmate they spotted in the Claque mansion's attic window, the trespassing girls are thwarted by the thug Rex. They chastise him for calling them girls ("We Are Not Girls"), but Tansy sinks to flirting with him in order to steal his gun.

Despite Tansy's overt sex appeal, she and her 17-year-old girlfriends maintain their virtue by sticking together. With impeccable harmony, they challenge the man enamored with any one of them to "Love Me, Love All Three." As Joe reasons, "There's not a man alive who can relate to all three types at once." More playful than mocking or shocking, latent and blatant lesbianism runs throughout The Clue: the all-female ensemble kiss, waltz together, and sing love songs to one another as women and dress in "drag" to create the male roles. As Mrs. Hargrove, their hostess at the Claque View Arms, sings the praises of her female lover in "The Edwina Waltz," Tansy, Bets, and Joe glow with happiness for her and dance with their own fantasy partners--three women in gossamer ball gowns.

Yet Tansy and her friends are neither gay nor straight--they're crime fighters. And though they're firmly prowoman, they're not man haters. They simply resent the intrusion of men who insist on "coming to the rescue" whether the girl detectives need them or not. Tansy steps out of character to explain that her 1950s incarnation isn't allowed to fight for herself and is saddled with three boys--Nat, Bob, and Steve--who take over when the going gets tough. Just then, who appears onstage to ogle the girls but Nat and his buddies, dressed in peg-leg jeans and letter-man sweaters. In a 50s-style ode to Tansy ("Tansy, Tansy, Tansy") Nat (played wonderfully straight-facedly by the lanky Patricia Kane, who also staged the fight scenes) sings "I'd love her a gob" with a look that says "Isn't she lucky?" In a hilarious act-one finale the unimpressed girls send the boys on a wild-goose chase.

The second act descends from clever silliness to dumb silliness. A beard-yanking psychiatrist with a German accent wrings his hands with delight as he prepares to perform a lobotomy on, of course, a woman, who broadly symbolizes an emotionally captive married woman. The cast goes heavy on the slapstick here, though the show regains its "lightness" with a fight scene--girls against men, staged in "slow motion" with strobe lights--a father-daughter sword fight, and a tap-dance finale.

Director Sandra Verthein, with musical director Susannah Kist and choreographer Phil Redmond, elicit the required levity from the performers. When Tansy, played by (Reader theater critic) Stephanie Shaw, matter-of-factly explains that her father hired Hedda Bruen when her mother died "to do all the work my mother did for free," Shaw delivers the dig with such innocence we almost miss it. Shaw, Jamie Pachino as Joe, and Demi Peterson as Bets are equally bright and quick, and in the songs their voices intermingle beautifully, though each is of solo quality. Equally adept at physical comedy, they make a pantomime dance out of the instructions they give to Nat and his buddies and a human shell game when weaving between one another for "Love Me, Love All Three."

Verthein's uncluttered set design gives the show a cartoon look. A cardboard cutout bed, nightstand, and grandfather clock are standard width but only as deep as the shallow stage will allow. The pieces are easily turned around to double as the bushes, birdbath, and concrete column that make up the Claque manor garden. The cartoonish set is mirrored in the costume design by Erica Hoelscher as well as the makeup. Tansy's red lips and dark eyebrows contrast with her white wig to create a plastic look, and the "dykish" Joe looks equally fabricated in a bright blue split skirt, speckled blouse, sailor's hat, and ponytail. Bets's pastel print pinafore is padded just enough to make her fashionably fat--that is, fat only in comparison with Tansy's perfect thinness.

The smallness of this production suits the play well, but it's easy to imagine that de Helen and Kasten's politically correct yet easygoing humor, coupled with this production's attention to detail, could cause its audience to outgrow Stage Left's house.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →