For many of us, the soap opera is one of life's guilty pleasures. Comforting in its predictability, brazenly far-fetched, the soap sets its audience afloat in a lazy, crazy river of sex, intrigue, crime and confessions. The players all speak in italics. The silences are deafening. And the line between drama and melodrama is stretched very very thin.
That line is willfully and hilariously destroyed from the first moment of "Under a Mantle of Stars," a play by the late Argentine novelist and playwright Manuel Puig ("Kiss of the Spider Woman"). First produced in 1982, this outrageous parody of the soap opera genre is enjoying its American premiere at Georgetown's Grace Episcopal Church, the new home of a fledgling, but anything but amateurish theatrical ensemble called CATCO (Contemporary Arts Theatre Company). Director Linda Lees and a cast of five crackerjack actors have gone for broke in the excess-and-exaggeration department, and it pays off sensationally. How they gasp, and glare, and slink seductively down staircases! Their pauses are as pregnant as they come, their lips and loins quiver like mounds of jello. Yet for all their looniness, these players never resort to camp, staying completely in character throughout the evening's unhinged proceedings.
Though the program informs us that "Under a Mantle of Stars" unfolds "in an Argentine country house, in the 1940s, towards sunset," for the most part the play takes place in the hyperactive imaginations of a trio who inhabit the nicely appointed dwelling. As Act I begins, Master (Carroll Carlson) and Mistress (Nancy Robinette) sit in their living room discussing their latest domestic crises. She is a ditsy blabbermouth addicted to radio serials; he is a repressed, bellowing wreck. Both are eagerly awaiting the arrival of their new maid because "without servants, there is no time for tragedy." They're also worried sick about the whereabouts of Daughter (Kate Malin) -- she has just been dumped by her boyfriend and they fear for her sanity and safety. Master goes so far as to place an emergency call to the local psychiatric hospital, but slams the phone down when asked to identify himself.
Aggravating the couple's perpetually agitated condition further is the fact that Daughter is not really theirs, but the offspring of friends who perished in a car accident. Mistress, it turns out, still carries a torch for the deceased father, with whom she would have run off if tragedy hadn't intervened. So when Daughter, a virginal blonde with an always-heaving bosom, sweeps disconsolately into her "parents' " arms, one knows it is only a matter of time before ...
A car door slams. The family flinches on cue, then freezes in anticipatory poses. Could it be the maid? The French doors swing back to reveal an alluring couple (Eamon Hunt and Kate Fleming) -- whom the playwright calls simply Visitor and Lady Visitor -- in '20s-style evening clothes. They say their car broke down on the way to a costume party. We quickly discover them to be jewel thieves. For Master, Mistress and Daughter, however, this mysterious twosome represents the vessels by which they can play out their every fantasy and fear. Not surprisingly, the pair is happy to acquiesce.
What ensues is a constantly shifting, increasingly absurd roundelay of seductions, confessions, heinous crimes and mistaken identities. In the fashion of the serial or soap, nothing is finite -- not even death. Like determined little gerbils racing 'round treadmills, Puig's characters never let up on their fantasies.
And because the actors capture that freneticism so charmingly, we never want to let them go. Carroll's neurotic braying, Malin's gushes and swoons, Hunt's devilish leers, Fleming's acid put-downs and Robinette's frowzy vamping combine to make "Under the Mantle" one of the daffiest entertainments around.
Under a Mantle of Stars, by Manuel Puig. Directed by Linda Lees. Scenic design by John D. Antone and Elizabeth Jenkins. Lighting by Christopher Townsend. Costumes by Betty R. Siegel. With Carroll Carlson, Kate Fleming, Eamon Hunt, Kate Malin, Nancy Robinette. At Grace Episcopal Church through Nov. 18.