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Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis

I pray for the second coming...God forgive me for saying this...but when he comes, I hope he is wearing rhinestones and singing "Love Me Tender"

Sarah Marshall, Kimberly Gilbert, David Bryan Jackson, Beth Hylton and Tony Nam
S. Marshall, K. Gilbert, D. B. Jackson, B. Hylton and T. Nam
(Photo: Stan Barouh)

Woolly Mammoth has unveiled a humorous Christmas show for everyone who feels the pain of "Home for the Holidays." The company's American premiere of Charlotte Jones' Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis is lighthearted fluff that's witty, fun and will entertain even the biggest Scrooge.

Set in Bolton, England on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th), Ms. Jones sets her story in the home of Josie, a professional dominatrix and single mother of two grown daughters who is on the cusp of turning forty. While one of her daughters (Shelley-Louise) is presumed dead, the other (Brenda-Marie) is mentally challenged, living at home and dreaming of being an ice dancer. Into their world comes Martha their OCD suffering housekeeper, who refuses to acknowledge the number six. Martha, who is unaware of Josie's occupation, counts to five repeatedly to ward off the Devil's temptations or when she is angry, nervous or confused -- which tend to be most of the time.

When Lionel, a client of Josie's who likes to dress as a French maid and be whipped for being a "naughty girl," discovers that Josie is retiring, he sets out to throw her a birthday party and promises a special surprise guest. Timothy Wong it turns out is an Elvis impersonator who is just starting out and doesn't know all the words to The King's songs. But he has heart and a trunk full of costumes, so Lionel hires him to stay for the duration of the party.

This birthday looks like a train wreck as Lionel pushes high-octane "Catastrophes" on everyone and Timothy does his best to sing in tune, but the collision really happens when the long dead Shelley-Louise arrives with her suitcase in hand and a chip on her shoulder. So ends Act One and Act Two picks up as Shelley-Louise and Josie sort out their differences, Lionel chases Martha, Brenda-Marie sits in her tent hoping for snow and Timothy Wong keeps changing costumes so someone will listen to him sing.

Director John Vreeke handles the subject material well in a screwball comedy that is short on plot and long on wacky characters. The two and a half hours flow by quickly and the only lag in timing is during Act Two, which Ms. Jones could shorten just a bit to tighten the material and keep things focused. Other than that, this production is pure Woolly -- zany characters, a dead corpse (in this case the corpse has come back for more), odd adult themes and a wacky ending to the entire affair. It's what the company does best and this is a great show for its season line up.

Dan Conway's set is a stately two story, English Tudor home with a hidden closet of leather fetish tools and an elaborate backdrop depicting an English townscape. Kate Turner-Walker's costumes -- especially the Elvis attire -- are on the mark and it looks like she had fun in outfitting the cast. Colin K. Bills' lighting has some very nice, holidayesque moments -- especially between the scene changes. And Matt Neilson keeps Elvis in the air with snippets of Presley hits throughout the show.

In the cast, Sarah Marshall is wonderful as the obsessive compulsive Martha. Her counting to five is funny, but in a way that brings sympathy for her and anyone who suffers from OCD. She walks a fine line between making Martha a caricature and a real person and succeeds in bringing out the eccentric humor in the housekeeper while maintaining the character's humanity.

Kimberly Gilbert achieves a similar feat with Brenda-Marie, bringing the young woman's vulnerabilities to the front and becoming the truth speaker in a home where no one is talking. When the ice dancing finally rises up within her you want to shout with glee.

Beth Hylton's Josie is a woman on the verge of middle age who is ready to give up her whips, chains and handcuffs for something else. What that something is, she is unsure, but she knows her days as a successful dominatrix are numbered and she would like to go out while she is still on top, so to speak. Meanwhile, Tiffany Fillmore's Shelley-Louise is a mix of anger and fear, insisting she is a grown woman, but acting at times like a little girl.

David Bryan Jackson brings Lionel into humorous life with a nonchalant attitude that moves well from French maid attire to more conventional clothing. Mr. Jackson pulls out Lionel's inner loneliness so that when the dry cleaner falls for Martha so quickly, the audience can accept the sudden turn of events between such different characters.

And Tony Nam creates an Elvis singing, rhinestone wearing Timothy Wong with whom you empathize. Handcuffed, whipped and heckled by his audience he keeps coming back for more in an attempt to win them over and when they don't respond -- he hides in a tent.

Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis is a fun treat which ends on a magical note that pokes gentle fun at itself and makes you laugh at our universal desire to have a Christmas miracle.

Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis
by Charlotte Jones
Directed by John Vreeke
with Sarah Marshall, Kimberly Gilbert, David Bryan Jackson, Beth Hylton, Tiffany Fillmore and Tony Nam
Set Design: Dan Conway
Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills
Sound Design: Matt Neilson
Costume Design: Kate Turner-Walker
Properties Master: Jennifer Sheetz
Dialect Coach: Jennifer Mendenhall
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street NW
Telephone: 202-393-3939
WED - SAT @8, SUN @2 & 7; $32-$52
Opening 11/06/06, closing 12/10/06
Reviewed by Rich See based on 11/12/06 performance
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© 2006  Elyse Sommer.