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Moving with grace from jig to waddle

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John Haldoupis, artistic director at Blackfriars Theatre, recently introduced a showing of May God Strike Me Dead... (If I'm Telling a Lie)! with: "We're thrilled to have a little-known performer --- perhaps you've heard of her --- Adele Fico." The audience twittered in knowing anticipation. Patrons who for years have enjoyed Fico's acting and comedy are now filling the theater to see her in her first one-woman show.

May God Strike Me Dead is about a wedding: Gina, to her mother and grandmother's delight, is finally getting married. Fico easily inhabits the three backbone roles of grandmother Nonna; daughter Vita; and, in the last scene, Gina. She also plays Mrs. O'Hare, who is Nonna's next-door-neighbor and grandmother to the groom, and Leon, grandfather to the best man. Other characters --- Inez, the drunk French chef, Sister Mary Beads 'n' Things --- are there and are very funny. But they don't contribute to the story. They are old favorites, invited to the party because they tell amusing stories.

The challenge with one-person shows is that there is only one person. How does the actor move convincingly between characters? May God Strike Me Dead gets help from an ingenious set. Blackfriars' round, rotating stage is divided like a pie, and each of the main characters gets its own "room." So Nonna can have her kitchen with sauce on the stove and half-made wedding favors on the kitchen table, and Mrs. O'Hare can have a prim living room with a JFK portrait and a bottle of whiskey hidden in the bookcase.

A video screen, suspended from the ceiling, is also meant to help. The audience is distracted with pictures and pre-recorded skits while Fico is changing offstage. But at times it is awkward, as when stock footage of what looks like a New Orleans tourism video is used to introduce Leon. The time between characters might have been better used if the sound designer and Corinne Aquilina (who wrote and plays the music) were just allowed to have a little more fun.

Character transitions are also helped by Nic Minetor's subtle and good lighting and some wonderful costumes by Lana Momano. Every detail, from Mrs. O'Hare's falling slip to Leon's polyester vest, was carefully chosen.

But none of that is needed in the last scene. With the transfer of a wig, a single line spoken like an incantation, and Fico's adept switch of physicality, Gina becomes her grandmother. It's gorgeous acting --- and wraps the whole storyline together.

The show is billed as "a comedy with music." Although Fico is a great singer, the songs here (not of all the music, most of which is scene-setting and appropriate) seem forced and out-of-character. It is not comfortable to watch Leon have to sing a song with "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" in the chorus. One exception: Inez's song is crying funny.

Fico's spicy humor --- present in almost every line --- is worth the ticket. But this is what should get the woman some sort of award: We leave Mrs. O'Hare dancing a jig for Ireland in her living room. When the lights come back up, we have Leon, a New Orleans cabdriver, waddling in checked pants. You might spend a minute or two wondering what makes the transformation so complete: is it the wig, is it Fico's putty-like face? But then you'll just forget it and enjoy.

May God Strike Me Dead... (If I'm Telling A Lie)! will run Friday through Sunday, July 30 through Aug 1, at Blackfriars Theatre, 28 Lawn Street, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. $22. 454-1260, www.blackfriars.org

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