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Monday, 05 December 2011 22:02

Hot stuff

Written by Bob Wilcox
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Christmas in the tropics provides the St. Louis Actors' Studio with a charming alternative to the usual snowy cheer. But this is not just any tropical setting. It's the penal colony in French Guiana, and the date is 1910.

In My Three Angels, playwrights Samuel and Bella Spewack find delicious irony in the contrasts between the three convicts – the three angels of the title, two murderers and a forger – and the others.

The others are Felix Ducotel and his wife and daughter. Felix, a mediocre businessman at best, has been set up in a shop in the penal colony by his wealthy cousin, Henri Trochard. Trochard had manipulated to his own advantage Felix's failure in his previous shop in France, and now he's coming to Guiana to check on his various investments, including the little shop.

With him is his nephew Paul, who back in France had enjoyed the daughter's infatuation with him while returning little of her affection.

The three convicts have been hired to make repairs to the Ducotels' roof. Discovering the family's dilemma, they descend from above on Christmas eve to set things right. Joseph, the forger, "corrects" Felix's messy books. Jules, a lover of domesticity who murdered his wife when he surprised her in bed with another man, arranges a fine Christmas dinner for the family. Young Alfred, a playboy who murdered the stepfather who refused to pay his debts, has a pet snake whose venom also comes in handy.

Director Elizabeth Helman and the cast take full advantage of the Spewacks' finely wrought dramatic structure to bring forth our laughter, tears, and joy. Whit Reichert delights in the forger's smooth salesmanship, and I could wish the rest of the cast had picked up their pace more to play better against the relaxed confidence of Joseph's style. Garrett Bergfeld makes a welcome return to the stage as the wife-murderer, nicely understated (a little too much so vocally sometimes). Dan Mueller, a young actor not yet at the level of his colleagues, does clearly embody youthful ardor. Larry Dell is a sweet innocent as Felix Ducotel, Penney Kols plays his long-suffering wife, and Emily Baker is the daughter who shows more spunk and sense than her misplaced affection might suggest. Richard Lewis is having almost too good a time as evil cousin Henri – he stops just short of twirling a mustache. Casey Boland is a perfect simp as nephew Paul, and he makes a fine transition as the handsome naval officer who appears in the final minutes.

In the admirable tradition of Actors' Studio's set designers, Cristie Johnston makes the back room of the little shop look no more crowded on that little stage than it should. Teresa Doggett revels in the period costumes and gives herself, as a customer regularly exploiting the shop's generous credit, a splendid outfit, topped by a glorious hat. Tropical lights are by Steve Miller, ambient sound and music by Robin Weatherall, and props by Robert VanDillen.

These angels may not get wings when the shop bell tinkles, but they do bring a pleasantly amusing evening to a happy close.

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