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Homage to filmmaking fit as a fiddle-dee-dee

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Fact is stranger than fiction, goes the old maxim, and it's also funnier in Moonlight and Magnolias, the Prairie Theatre Exchange season-ender.

Irish-born pen-for-hire Ron Hutchinson has fashioned a realistic fantasy about the real-life rewriting of the screenplay for Gone With the Wind in 1939. All subtlety is also gone with a comic gust as the excellent local cast sends up Margaret Mitchell's story to hilarious effect, particularly in the sparkling first act. (It heads further south after intermission when it asks to be taken more seriously.)

As the lights come up, there's trouble in Tinseltown, where big-time producer David O. Selznick has suspended filming on his would-be blockbuster, canned director George Cukor, dragged Victor Fleming off the set of The Wizard of Oz to replace him and parachuted in hotshot rewriter Ben Hecht.

Selznick has all his money and reputation riding on this project, so he locks himself and his two new recruits in his office until they produce a new screenplay. All they have to eat are bananas and peanuts, which Selznick believes enhance brain power.

The mogul's office is strikingly conceived by designer Elli Bunton, who has set the upper level atop what looks like a reel of film.

Hutchinson's running gag is that Hecht is one of the few people who has not read the 1,037-page bestseller, so the other two have to play-act the melodrama of Scarlett and Rhett's tumultuous love affair.

Director Ann Hodges oversees a snappy homage to movie-making in film's golden age. It's a messy process, as evidenced by the piles of discarded scripts, crumpled paper, banana peels and peanut shells littering the stage after the five-day marathon.

There is even a little homemade filmmaking on display when the actors perform speeded-up scenes lit by a strobe light.

Whether silly as the superior Scarlett or outrageously demanding as the autocratic Selznick, Gordon Tanner gives one of his best performances as a desperate man who will not be denied the making a great movie. He is all over the stage, chasing and cajoling his charges, and is then equally persuasive when Selznick is catatonic and frozen stiff for five minutes.

James Durham portrays combative Fleming (he only hit Judy Garland once on the Oz set, he maintains) with the same comic conviction as he does the pregnant Melanie, the dashing Rhett or the young black maid Prissy in the impromptu re-enactments.

It is the dream merchant Hecht (Omar Khan) who balks at including the racism depicted in the American South without comment. "We have a responsibility to make American look its ugly mug in the mirror," he says.

Moonlight and Magnolias gets weighty one moment, when Hecht is chiding Selznick over anti-Semitism in Hollywood, and then goes all giddy the next, when he is a participant in a three-way, slap-happy scene that channels the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.

Khan, so impressive last season in Glengarry Glen Ross at the MTC Warehouse, is up to the task of being Hutchinson's conscience as the weary Hecht pounds away at the typewriter.

As the boss's humourless secretary, Miriam Smith manages to hold audience attention despite saying little other than, "Yes, Mr. Selznick," dozens of time.

Moonlight and Magnolias loses some of its wind in the second act, as the premise is sapped of its novelty, but on a snowy, frigid spring Winnipeg night, it proved a welcome diversion.



Moonlight and Magnolias

Prairie Theatre Exchange

To April 12

Tickets: $22-$38

3-1/2 stars out of five

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 28, 2009 C3

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