In the original iteration of “The Queen of Bingo,” known as “the play you play along with” by Jeanne Michels and Phyllis Murphy, its central characters, two middle-aged, bingo-obsessed sisters, were played by men in drag. This is but one way the audience played along, as intermission also included a bingo game for which the winner received a 10-pound turkey.
At The New Vic in Kalamazoo, “The Queen of Bingo” is all in good fun, and the audience does play bingo in the theater cum bingo hall at intermission for different prizes; however, the sisters playing bingo on stage are women — not men dressed as women — cracking jokes about themselves and at times revealing their inner turmoil over the fact that no matter how often they play or win at bingo, they still feel like losers at life.
It’s a juxtaposition ripe for comedy, for most of us can relate to the humorous self deprecation and Midwestern sensibilities and observations that emerge from this light-hearted script, which has been adapted to reflect local street names and establishments familiar to Kalamazoo audiences. And there’s a further verisimilitude in the performances from Lisa Ouellette as Sis and Jennifer Furney as Babe, the two sisters who sit side-by-side with their various talismans and bingo cards, poised with practiced daubers. Female-born women playing these roles rather than men in drag no doubt changes if not limits the comedy in some ways, but it also allows for deeper meaning in a script whose plot is thin and focus is on laughs.
Ouellette sets the stage with her purse full of trinkets that emerge one by one as a sacred ritual at St. Joe’s weekly bingo game. She convincingly reveals, as Sis, over the course of the first act, that bingo has become a compulsion, an escape from the purposelessness of her life, and though she rarely wins, she makes an appearance at a different hall to test her luck every day of the week.
Furney plays a redheaded spitfire Babe, the more strongly written character, with fiery gusto that never even hints at caricature. She and Ouellette have a wonderfully natural repartee, and these bingo queens are also gossip queens who make terrible fun of everyone around them, especially the obese, one woman in particular whose pant seams “are doing the work of a yoke of oxen” and the Protestants, who “wouldn’t know a sin from a rat’s ass.”
But it’s the sisters’ own sins, and their hidden guilt and shame about them, that become the focus. Sis’s bingo habit allows her “to feel like a big shot every once in a while” amid an otherwise life of quiet desperation, but also isolates her as she hides in the secret addiction and costs her more than she wins. Even more dramatic is Babe’s revelation of her binge eating that’s growing increasingly difficult to hide as none of her clothes fit and her prayer becomes “I will not buy a size 18, Lord, do you hear me?”
Director James Furney milks what little action there is in this situational comedy from the enormous energy, gestures and wonderful facial expressions from Furney and Ouellette. Aside from a leap onto their chairs and a moment of crawling on all fours, there’s very little blocking as the women remain perched behind their bingo cards. And yet the play moves relatively quickly and the hour and 20 minutes flies by with plenty of laughs.
Whether the situation hits close to home or not, there’s something not only recognizable and real in these characters but also terrifically sweet and funny in The New Vic’s interpretation and performance of this amusing show that also offers surprising depth.
Queen of Bingo
The New Vic Theatre
March 30-April 21