Gumption rules

Gonzo Miss Firecracker Contest at New Village Arts crackles and pops

Samantha Ginn as Carnelle in The Miss Firecracker Contest at New Village Arts.
  • Samantha Ginn as Carnelle in The Miss Firecracker Contest at New Village Arts.

The Miss Firecracker Contest

Daren Scott’s directed how many shows? Less than a handful? His staging of Beth Henley’s gonzo comedy feels like the work of a seasoned pro. Not only has he served the play well, his cast has a palpable chemistry. They obviously enjoy making bold choices, and working together.

Which allows Samantha Ginn to cut loose as Carnelle Scott. One of the most honest actors around, Ginn doesn’t go beyond what she’s given. A less daring cast would have held her back. This crack ensemble, however, provides a runway for one of the year’s most soaring efforts.

Carnation “Carnelle” Scott, an orphan, grew up in the shadow of cousin Delmount, a loose cannon fresh from a mental institution, and cousin Elain, aka. “Miss Perfect”(she won Brookhaven’s Miss Firecracker Contest at age 17, youngest ever to hold the most coveted trophy in Southern Mississippi).

Lauren King in The Miss Firecracker Contest at New Village Arts.

Lauren King in The Miss Firecracker Contest at New Village Arts.

Carnelle is Elain’s exact opposite. Now 24, she has a “reputation.” Where Elain was Miss Firecracker, Carnelle’s “Miss Hot Tamale.”

But Carnelle’s reformed. She swears she’s an ugly duckling. Her showcase: the beauty contest. If she wins, she’ll leave town “in a blaze of crimson glory.”

She’s got a chance. It looks like an off year (her closest competitor has yellow teeth). But maybe dying her long hair neon red wasn’t such a good idea, and her baton twirling lacks polish, and even her timing’s a mite strident. And why seek her identity by following Elain’s path?

But come on — gumption rules!

Ah, Beth Henley! Few American playwrights make the clash of hope vs. reality so vivid, funny, and moving. And, embedded in her gothic mini-tales (how aunt Roselle’s pituitary gland transplant from a monkey sprouted long black hair), are subtle probes of feminist concerns, in this case the ubiquitous male standard of blue-eyed, blond-haired beauty when the play premiered in 1980.

New Village reset Miss Firecracker in the “mid-Eighties.” To establish the period, Robert May’s sound-score includes music from the Pretenders and the Tube’s dazzler “She’s a Beauty!” — which nicely underscores Henley’s theme.

The cast is uniformly solid — and whacko — from Justin Lang’s hyperactive Delmount, to Eddie Yaroch’s sane/looney Mac Sam (a walking ugly pageant, in whom six or eight terminal illnesses compete to finish first) to Kristin Woodburn’s Elain (especially when in doubt) and Lauren King’s officious Tessy.

If it weren’t Carnelle’s show, Melissa Coleman-Reed’s Popeye Jackson would steal it. Not that she’s trying. Popeye is pure Beth Henley: an African-American, near-blind seamstress, she even makes clothes for frogs (like that little nurse’s suit). Coleman-Reed gives a detailed, funny, and convincing portrait of a woman who follows her convictions with courage, regardless of social barriers.

And Samantha Ginn? Backed by a stage-wide American flag, she often plays front (the audience is her mirror) and disappears throughout. Instead, Carnelle gives us a moment-by-moment fluctuation of her feelings, from obsessive-compulsive determination to full, spotlit, heartbreaking vulnerability.

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