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Tucson Weekly Boarding School Blues

"The Wimpley School," Lost River Stageworks' delightful debut, suffers from light attendance.

By Margaret Regan

JUNE 8, 1998:  TWO ROOMMATES AT cross-purposes are jammed together in the tiny dorm room at the Wimpley School for Girls. Wait, make that the Wimpley School for Wayward Girls. Sibyl, the classic bad girl vying to get expelled from the penny-pinching boarding school, insists that every inmate has done something bad, real bad. Dolled up in black leather over private-school plaid, Sibyl claims to have killed three bothersome roommates already.

Her newest roommate, Vanessa, perky hair in a flip, is suitably cowed. She bows her head and vows to do her best not to be annoying. But what Sibyl doesn't know is that the seemingly serene Vanessa has a little problem of her own: When other girls reject her, she tends to bring out a nice, sharp ax.

Murderous roommates at odds are just one of the staples of boarding-school comedy, and playwright Rich Amada deftly juggles a host of others--from hypocritical headmistress to neurotic math teacher to gin-swilling gym coach--in his funny new play, The Wimpley School for Wayward Girls. The comedy opened last weekend at the Tucson Center for the Performing Arts, the first outing of the brand-new Lost River stageworks.

Amada, a Tucsonan familiar in local theatre circles, workshopped the play at this year's Old Pueblo Playwrights New Play Festival in January. His well-written script ripples with 12 eccentric characters and an infinity of smart one-liners. But he's added a twist for the live performance, insisting that all 12 roles be played by just two actresses. Anne Butman does Sibyl, and Susan Thomas does Vanessa, but they also tackle everybody else. Thomas, a veteran of local dinner theatre mysteries, portrays the gym teacher of indeterminate sex; the administrator who drains resources from the school to pay for her private Porsche; Sibyl's negligent mom; and a skirt-chasing janitor. A choruser for Arizona Opera, Butman turns into the ghost of the school's founder, the white-gloved Miss Wimpley; a basketball bonehead; the headmistress; and the hapless Miss Rook, teacher of math.

Both performers seamlessly make the required quick switches from part to part. Thomas in particular disappears entirely into each role, altering her voice and posture and costume to inhabit at one moment the part of the greedy administrator with throaty voice and sensible heels, at the next the blustery gym teacher in sneakers. The two-act play is divided into a series of short scenes, and each personality reappears probably a dozen times. This technique eventually builds up a sense of the characters, and amongst all the zaniness there are even a few moments of pathos when we realize that both students have essentially been cast off by their uncaring parents.

Director Hal Melfi keeps the skits moving at a quick pace. In between, a tiny high school-style band pumps out such classics as "Pomp and Circumstance" and "The Wimpley Fight Song," a new creation.

Amusing script, capable performers, silly music...what's missing? An audience. A light-hearted romp like this one demands an appreciative crowd delivering hearty guffaws. Without that kind of response, the play doesn't build up the momentum it needs to assay the heights of hilarity. Sunday's crowd was thin and hopelessly sedate. These wayward girls deserve better. s

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