Wednesday evening's audience clearly had a lot of fun watching and interacting with the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating, & Marriage. In truth, the performance would not have been quite as much fun if there were more watching and less interacting. While there are plenty of laughs to be had as the titular character in this PG-13-style comedy offers advice on flirting, relationships, and sex, there are also a few missteps made along the way.
The play by authors Ken Davenport and Sarah Saltzberg is presented as an inspirational-speaker tour, of sorts, with relationship how-to's as its main topics. Miss Abigail - portrayed here by Kateri Demartino, and dressed in a sharp, green skirt suit by costume designer Gregory Hiatt - reads quotes from dozens of early-20th Century books on hygiene, flirting, kissing, and mating, and then offers her own advice through phrases such as "You shouldn't get your honey where you get your money" and "Love can't be bought, but it can be taught." She's accompanied by Jonathan Iglesias' energetic, dramatic, somewhat dimwitted Paco, a Latin lover who speaks in a mixture of English and Spanish and drops hints of his love for Miss Abigail throughout the presentation. Their speaking tour is set against designer Christopher Gadomsky's backdrop of loaded, nearly wall-to-wall bookshelves, an armchair, a loveseat, and a "Miss Abigail" logo, all reminiscent of what you'd find on a daytime-talk-show set.
Directed by Warner Crocker, Circa '21's production relies on audience participation, which rendered the first few minutes of Wednesday's performance a little flat ... until those in attendance understood what was happening, and got used to the idea of interacting with the characters in the play. When the patrons did get rolling, Crocker's presentation took off, with some of the most enjoyable moments coming from Demartino's ad-lib responses and lost composure as she tried to stifle laughs brought on by unexpected comments and reactions from audience members. (On Wednesday, one involved an audience member's fit of giggles over Miss Abigail's mention of the nickname "tucky butt," which occurred during a story about a woman caught with the back of her skirt in her pantyhose.)
These spontaneous moments proved to be my favorite things about Demartino's portrayal. In Dating, Mating, & Marriage, her Miss Abigail comes across as a woman working from a script, saying all of her clever lines with detachment rather than with intended nuance and emotion. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as the performer's lack of emotional connection to the material is believable if taken as the result of Miss Abigail reciting the same spiel over and over again. However, Demartino's calculated, somewhat cold deliveries make it difficult, as an audience member, to connect with the material ourselves. This is likely why Demartino's barely stifled laughs - and the shouts from the audience - were my favorite parts of the performance, even though Davenport's and Saltzberg's material is loaded with humor.
The most significant issue with Demartino's casting, however, is her age, as she appears too young to believably portray a character who recalls egg creams, banana splits served by a soda jerk, and (alluded-to) drug use in the 1960s. In his flirting, Paco also throws in lines about cougars, which miss their mark given that the actors' ages don't seem far enough apart for this Miss Abigail to be classified as a cougar - unless she just looks really, really good for her age.
In contrast to Demartino's Miss Abigail, Iglesias' Paco does seem fully engaged with the material, excitedly fetching books for his boss on cue, rallying the audience to applaud (and occasionally dance), and exuding so much energy that he could power the stage lights for the run of the show. His good looks don't hurt matters, either, as the women in the audience - with their inhibitions gradually diminishing - made vocally clear.
While Circa 21's production could use some tightening, particularly in the pacing, Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating, & Marriage isn't one to be glossed over. And the experience could be especially fun if, as I was, you're lucky enough to attend it with a rather randy audience.
Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating, & Marriage runs at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island) through March 23, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visiting Circa21.com.