Vana O'Brien and Luisa Sermol shine in this frolicsome play-within-a-play aimed at poking affectionate fun at Charlotte and Emily Brontë, the Victorian sisters famous for authoring Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Originally performed at the Nottingham Playhouse by the British comedy team LipService, Withering Looks portrays two maladroit actresses who set out to honor their two favorite authors by recreating imagined scenes from their lives on the windswept Yorkshire moors. The duo's ham-handed frisk is rife with missed entrances, cheap props and the general blundering of a fine British farce.
Audience members are asked to participate by raising their voices (when appropriate) and making use of several sound effect props scattered throughout the house, including tubes of pellets for hail, film canisters for lightning, and a strange thunder-wielder device. The night I attended a tiny old man sitting in front of me was the thunder-wielder, and his wonderful bald head would ripple and redden with excitement each time he shook the prop.
Cygnet veterans O'Brien and Sermol play off each other very well as the two literary enthusiasts cum actresses Audrey and Olivia. Sermol's Audrey is a younger, more raucous sort, employing a pitch-perfect South London dialect against O'Brien's highfalutin Oxford drawl. Some of O'Brien's finer moments occur when Olivia makes a mistake, and Audrey gently but acidly scolds her while maintaining a happy, toothy smile.
The two actresses get to play a host of other characters as well, including the strapping old neighbor Mr. Moorcock and the Yorkshire-born servant Nelly. The play ends with a portrayal of MGM's production of Wuthering Heights, in which Sermol dons a beard and plays Laurence Olivier playing Heathcliff, while O'Brien's Cathy Linton agonizes over whether to marry him, or David Niven.
Directed by Louanne Moldovan, Withering Looks comes after a year long hiatus for Cygnet Theater. The company is a self-described "literary cabaret" dedicated to adapting and dramatizing works of literature and "staging existing dramatic works of notably literary quality or focus." Their next scheduled production will be in the fall of 2004 at Lakewood Theater in Lake Oswego; a revival of their popular ode to New York's writerly hoity toits at the end of World War I, Vitriol & Violets: Tales From the Algonquin Round Table. ANDREW HARRIS