The first thing I noticed about the Red Eye Lounge-the shady airport lounge where Gunmetal Blues is set-were the big louvers. Genre-wise, louvers are a dead giveaway. As with a certain kind of man in a trench coat and fedora, or certain blonde women in sheath cocktail dresses, whenever I see venetian-blind style lights, I just know dark things will be happening in a show-things you wouldn’t want to tell the wrong people about, because “somebody might get hurt.” Of course, UCSB associate professor of drama and busy director Risa Brainin never made this threat, but when she showed me the stage design and the costume sketches and explained, “because it’s a murder mystery, there won’t be a synopsis in the program,” I knew immediately that this was no place for spoilers. So you won’t be getting any out of me.
As Brainin put it, “If you know what’s coming, the experience won’t be right.” What I can reveal about this, the first show of the season from Ensemble Theatre Company, is that Gunmetal Blues was inspired by the work of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Edward Hopper, and that it is a musical that uses only three actors, but includes many more characters than that. Only the detective, Sam Galahad, who will be played by Christopher Halsted, stays in a single role. The other two actors-the lounge pianist Buddy Toupee (John Massey), and the blonde femme fatale Carol Indigo (JJ Rogers)-play many characters, and sing in all of them.
Brainin-who worked with Gunmetal Blues authors Marion Adler, Scott Wentworth, and Craig Bohmler at the Indiana Repertory Theatre in the 1990s-clearly is having a ball with this piece, which she says is intended “to be fun, but to retain the wounded heart of the characters, rather than to be a pure satire or send-up of the film noir genre.” She cites the classic 1982 Steve Martin film Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid as an inspiration, saying, “Steve Martin was always from the heart. His work can be totally farcical, but there is always a rubber band attached to the comedy that pulls it back to the heart of the character. We are doing Gunmetal Blues in the same way-with love and respect and not as a parody. We have been working in rehearsal on getting it right to the edge, but also following something that is actually in Marion Adler’s script, which is that it must not cross over into camp.”
Taking off from every cliched line and situation in the film noir playbook, Gunmetal Blues goes after the same satisfactions and dramatic payoffs that one would expect from a classic murder mystery, but it adds both music and laughter to the mix. In Brainin’s words, “If you know the form, you will delight in every moment, because it is so intricately woven a plotline. And the music is great-blues, jazz, but also a Sondheim feeling. And it’s not easy to sing.”
So guys, get out the Burberry, and ladies, put on an extra-red shade of lipstick, because it’s going to be a dark and wild night.
Gunmetal Blues runs at the Ensemble Theatre Company’s Alhecama Theatre (914 Santa Barbara St.) from Thursday, October 1, through Sunday, October 25. For tickets and information, call 965-5400 or visit ensembletheatre.com.