Making a character come alive on stage is a challenge. Making that character your own after it was created, written and played by Amy Sedaris, is a feat. Creating a life onstage that shatters expectations and at once tickles and warms you is a winning hand. In The Book of Liz, playing through February at The Alley Theater in Butchertown, Madeleine Dee is cashing in. Accompanied by a talented cast that is clearly having fun, Ms. Dee manages to take a character that could be taken so over the edge just due to the writing and turn her into to a charming, authentic – and yes, still funny – woman. All with an adorable Tootsie-esque voice.
The Book of Liz, written by Amy and David Sedaris and directed here by Alley artistic director Todd Zeigler, spins a yarn of Sister Elizabeth Donderstock (Dee), a cheese ball maker from a Squeamish community (*see Amish) in Clusterhaven. Liz’s whole community rests on the popularity in the outside world of her cheese balls, a recipe that only she knows and keeps under her “bonnet.” But when the imperial Reverend Tollhouse and Brother Brightbee seek to take over the cheese ball business, Liz feels the world closing in around her. Rather than letting that happen she busts the world wide open and travels for the first time outside of Clusterhaven to find greener pastures. Of greener pastures we aren’t certain, but you can count on llamas, breakfast burritos and Mr. Peanut.
Audiences should appreciate that Mr. Zeigler doesn’t lead his cast down a path of the exaggerated and over the top, instead allowing them to have moments of clarity and become full characters. Over the top would have been the easy choice when dealing with things like chastity parades and sermons on “the evils of casual glancing.” Beginning her adventures Liz is taken in by a pair of Ukrainians with Cockney accents (played excellently by Chris Petty and Susan Crocker). Later, she winds up working in a Pilgrim-themed restaurant staffed entirely by AA members called Plymouth Crock where she is taken under the wing of her General Manager, Duncan. JP Lebangood, who pulls double-duty as Reverend Tollhouse, plays Duncan with a hilariously eerie precision. Through it all, our titular hero plays a sort of Dorothy and Glinda to the madness. Searching for herself while providing souls with wisdom along the way, “If you don’t believe in a higher power than yourself, try jumping in the air and staying there!”
The Sedarises could border on being described as politically incorrect or insensitive in Liz with its jokes on homosexuality, Alcoholics Anonymous, religion and sex. But when written by folks who could probably be experts on most of those subjects and played by a well-directed cast the jokes prove to be lampooning rather than cutting. That will make all the sense in the world to those who have watched Strangers With Candy. The five-member ensemble plays many parts of varying ages, nationalities and levels of sanity between them and for the most part succeeds. Only a time or two would things deflate when an actor chose to use an accent or lisp as their only characterization. I assume this is due to their turbo-charged rehearsal period (2 weeks) and that it’s just the beginning. Based on their work in other scenes I can’t imagine everything won’t keep developing.
The production team is as tight as the cast. Keeping the set and costume design efficient and simple helps keep the pace up of the evening, as does the music used during interludes. As Liz’s life becomes more fast-paced and hectic so does the music, helping us map where along the path we are. The use of light for time lapses was a nice touch, as swift as film.
In the end, our Dorothy perhaps realizes that what she was looking for was always in her own backyard. If your world is Sedaris, there’s no place like home.
The Book of Liz
By Amy and David Sedaris
Directed by Todd Zeigler
The Alley Theater
1210 Franklin Street
Louisville, KY 40206
502-713-6178 / www.thealleytheater.org
February 7-9, 14-16, 21-23 at 7:30pm – February 17 at 2pm
$20 General Admission
$18 Student, Senior, Military
Starring: Madeleine Dee, JP Lebangood, Emma Johnson, Susan Crocker, Chris Petty
Stage Manager: Patrick Bias