August 15, 2014

Three Bone bites into ‘Five Women’

Small troupe packs UpStage for Alan Ball’s comedy

Three Bone Theatre takes its name from Reba McEntire’s observation that you need three things to succeed: a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone.

The backbone showed up in fall 2012, when Catawba College graduates Carmen Bartlett and Robin Tynes founded the troupe with little money and less fanfare. The funny bone has been displayed in shows such as Alan Ball’s “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress,” now on view in NoDa.

And the wishbone? They’re probably wishing NoDa had more parking spaces, as some members of Friday’s sold-out audience had a long walk to UpStage.

That journey was rewarded with a play that was fast, fierce and focused in Act 1 before fragmenting in Act 2. The actresses explored Ball’s blunt, biting humor, abetted by a charming extended cameo near the end by Mason Parker. (The lone man in the show played a wry potential partner for a man-wary bridesmaid.)

The five neither begin nor end as close friends of each other, let alone the unseen bride. But as they bicker and banter and unbutton themselves between the wedding and the reception held by a Knoxville, Tenn., family, we understand them well.

Meredith (Tynes), the bride’s directionless younger sister, has moved home after college to carp about her conservative parents. Tricia (Tania Kelly) has quit hoping for a man who’ll accept her oversexed, uncommitted self. Georgeanne (Becky Schultz) has pointless affairs to forget her dead-ended marriage.

Bubble-headed Frances (Callie Bachorski), a Christian who reminds us often of her moral views, is baffled by Mindy (Tiffany Bryant), a well-adjusted lesbian. (What does it say that Ball made the only happy female character gay? The four straight ones range from uneasy to miserable.)

Though Ball wrote the play in 1993, and the program sets it in 1987, it feels current. Mindy seems incredibly at ease with her sexuality for Tennessee 27 years ago, and some of the dialogue has a modern ring. (Note to director Hardy Koenig, who did a fine job of keeping the show flowing: No one should mention “Pretty Woman” in 1987, as it hadn’t been made yet.)

Ball takes clunky pot shots at a Christianity that must have seemed repressive and hateful to a gay man growing up in Georgia in the 1970s: Frances is not only the least individual character but the most annoying. He also shoehorns a dramatic crisis into Act 2; it comes out of nowhere, though it helps to explain Meredith’s behavior, and it doesn’t get resolved.

He’s on surer ground when he lets the five talk about lust, sadness and other things they feel after a bride they dislike (and perhaps envy) weds a husband who suits her. The play’s billed as a comedy, but it occasionally sails meaningfully into deeper waters.

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