BTF premiere plumbs dark stuff of beauty pageants

Berkshire Theatre Festival’s “Pageant Play,” now being premiered at the festival’s Unicorn Theater h

Categories: Entertainment, Life & Arts

Berkshire Theatre Festival’s “Pageant Play,” now being premiered at the festival’s Unicorn Theater has nothing to do with religion.

On the other hand, for some people, child beauty pageants are a religion. They inspire commitment to a single purpose; in this case “to win no matter what it costs us.”

‘Pageant Play’

WHERE: Berkshire Theatre Festival, Route 102, Stockbridge, Mass.

WHEN: Through July 26

HOW MUCH: $44-$19.50

MORE INFO: (413) 298-5576

This is dark stuff, which the co-playwrights Matthew Wilkas and Mark Setlock have mined creatively and with comic intent. Their satire succeeds on many levels, exploring the impulses that lead mothers to cast their little girls as beauty queens and scorning the methods they use to achieve their goals.

Setlock (Bobby) and Wilkas (Bob) play two “finish coaches” who can turn any girl — even an “ugly” one — into a beauty queen. Their system, briefly named “SHEIT,” includes perfecting the Smile and Hair, getting the Eyes to say success, creating the Illusion of beauty, and developing the child’s Talent. The anagram pretty much tells you what the playwrights’ think of their subject.

Wise casting choice

They wisely carry through by casting two little 4-year-old competitors not as actors but as empty, sparkly tutus who are tossed about by their mothers and their coaches and brought out on a wash line for each of the beauty pageants they are forced to endure. Had real child actors been cast, the play would be just too hard to watch.

The two mothers are Marge (Daiva Deupree) and Pinky (Jenn Harris). They are driven by different motives, but the result is the same — the children become objects of the adults’ ambition.

Director Martha Banta leads her actors deftly through the gloomy corridors of the characters’ lives and the comedy that often emerges despite their pain.

Setlock plays Bobby as a flamboyant salesman, teaching little girls the intricacies of poise and finesse and creating moves for them such as “sassy shoulders” and the “pucker pout.” Wilkas, as Bob, Bobby’s partner in business and in life, is a shy, timid soul, who learns that he is the real brains and talent of the team.

Chain of bad moms

But, in this production, it is the women — the mothers — who own the show. Harris creates a bitchy, thoroughly scary Pinky, who is driven by personal memories of a childhood filled with beauty pageants, abuse and shame. She is seen in a horrific flashback as a vulnerable girl of 12, whose drunken mother (Deupree) demands that she submit to breast implant surgery. And, her mother informs her, if she does not win the next pageant, the mother will kill her dog.

Deupree plays Marge as a repressed and lonely woman who kidnaps a child and enters her in beauty contests. Marge hopes to get her abusive husband (Setlock) out of jail with the prize money the little girl wins. Deupree handles Marge’s emergence as an independent and honorable woman with supreme skill and beautiful timing.

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