Last Friday night's audience for "Marilyn: Forever Blonde" — the inaugural show of Arkansas TheatreWorks Inc. — was a quintessential cross-section of Hot Springs.
It was a crowd made up mostly of well-dressed retirees and gallery types, seasoned with a handful of Oaklawn oddballs and a few folks who didn't give a second thought to slowly, loudly unwrapping a cough drop during a particularly quiet part of the show.
The venue, too, has a classic Spa City feel. The recently renovated Central Theater, at 1008 Central Ave., has a touch of historic preservation about it, but it's much more informal coziness than stately opulence.
Managing director Sheldon Kleinman and artistic director Jerry Davis had been working on starting a professional theater company for some time, but had trouble finding the right venue.
Kleinman and Davis each have decades of experience. Davis has written and directed productions in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas, and Kleinman graduated from the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago and was managing director of the Goodman Theatre, the Yale Repertory Theatre and the California Actors Theatre.
After an initial agreement with the Malco Theater fell through, the pair considered the Central Theater just down the street. The venue hadn't hosted a professional performance in more than a decade, and the owner at that time — who was also living in the building — wasn't interested in renting it.
But when they got word last fall that the building had been sold, they contacted the new owner, Bill Volland, who was very receptive to the idea of leasing the space to Arkansas TheatreWorks, Kleinman said.
Some renovations were necessary to ready the space for performances.
"There was no theatrical lighting system and the stage that the previous owner had put in was very small with a very low ceiling. It was impossible to light," Kleinman said.
"So we put in a new stage. We also had to install an appropriate lighting grid and arrange to be able to have a complete, up-to-date theatrical lighting system," he said. "In building out the stage, it was necessary to move seats so there would be room. But none of that changed the actual seating capacity. We moved the seats around and we still have a 282-seat auditorium."
While the upgrades certainly improved the situation, Arkansas TheatreWorks will still have some limitations in the types of shows it can produce.
"There's no fly space, so we are limited, really, to the kind of set that we can put up. It doesn't necessarily have to be a box set, but it has to be something that is within the limitations of our physical plant," Kleinman said. "Likewise, we're limited in terms of the number of dressing rooms that we have. We need to, at least initially, until we can work something else out, keep the shows relatively small."
But those are the types of constraints many community theater companies face, and Kleinman said he believes Arkansas TheatreWorks will be able to bring in a good mix of shows every season, ideally with one touring show and four local productions.
"In my mind, five shows allows you to do a good mix," he said.
In addition to individual ticket sales, Arkansas TheatreWorks sells annual subscriptions, which offer a guaranteed seat for a performance of each show at a discount. So far, the company has sold about 600 subscriptions, with a goal of selling 1,000, Kleinman said.
Arkansas TheatreWorks will present four more shows after "Marilyn" this season, all of which will be local productions. Next up will be "Moonlight and Magnolias," a comedy by Ron Hutchinson about the writing of the screenplay for "Gone with the Wind."
That show has been cast, and Davis said he is in the process of callbacks for the next show, Edward Albee's enduring classic "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Davis said that while theatre companies are always happy with higher turnout, he's been pleased with ticket sales so far.
"I always say nobody in their right mind would start a theater company and this is my second one," he said.
"Marilyn: Forever Blonde" runs through May 15, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on weekdays, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee. The one-woman play was written by Greg Thompson and stars his wife Sunny Thompson, who sings and sashays and slinks and slips her way through several iconic songs (and outfits) as she narrates the life of Marilyn Monroe.
With an uncanny vocal and visual resemblance to the bombshell starlet, Thompson's performance showcases her dramatic dexterity, shifting between cheesy, '50s-diner pastiche and a truly eerie channeling of a complex, troubled woman.
While deeply sympathetic to its subject, the script doesn't confer sainthood on her. It is rife with references to Monroe's sexual exploits, from the earliest days of an innocent 16-year-old bride discovering the pleasures of lovemaking to bitter ruminations on her sex symbol status and the objectification inherent in that role.
Thompson's Monroe also dishes extensively on the appetites of various Hollywood moguls, all of whom, of course, wanted to sample the goods. It also alludes to a one-night fling with Joan Crawford, complete with "screaming orgasm."
It's a good bet some in the audience Friday night got more than they bargained for. One older couple sitting in the back — the aforementioned cough-drop wrapper crinklers — seemed mortified. After debating whether to stay on for the second act, the woman said, "Well, we spent the money, so we might as well stay."
Toward the show's end, during a particularly quiet, emotionally climactic moment, the man's cell phone went off at air raid siren volume. "Dadgummit," his wife told the audience. "He turned the dang thang off and it's still ringing."
But Thompson, no doubt a road warrior who's accustomed to these kinds of things, was completely unfazed.
After the show, as the couple was leaving, the husband said, "Was that what you thought it'd be?"
"Well, no," she said.
Nothing against the sensibilities and dramatic criticism of Arkansans, but that right there was a ringing endorsement.