After several seasons in Winter Garden, Jester Theater Company makes a welcome return to Orlando with their production of Parallel Lives at the Shakes, running through Sunday, Sept. 16. Nothing against the Garden Theatre, but that space was never intimate enough for the character-driven comedies at which Jester excels. Plus, they could never stage a show at that family-friendly venue like Mo Gaffney and Kathy Najimy's satirical skits about the battle of the sexes.
Best known as a 1991 HBO special, the sketches were written for a pair of performers – but director Jay Hopkins has expanded the roster to four actresses. It's a risky choice that pays off, thanks to clever editing and a cast of four first-class comedians. The play kicks off with a couple of well-intentioned angels (Maria Ragen and Michele Simms Feren) accidentally inventing gender inequality, then shifts swiftly to bimbo college student Kris (Jodi Chase) on a date with frat jock Jeff (Karen White).
From there, it skips through every stage of the human life (and love) cycle – childhood catechism, adolescent experimentation, middle-aged mundanity and awkward old age. Most of the vignettes are two-handers, with the quartet swapping scene partners, but a handful have been handily reimagined for four players, most memorably a parody commercial for male menstruation and a therapy session for the forgotten mothers of Disney heroines.
Parallel Lives was the first play I ever produced for the Orlando Fringe Festival, back in 2004, so I was intrigued to see how another company would approach this show. Happily, Jester's version easily exceeds mine in production values (some sloppy scene changes aside) and captures not only the comedy, but the quiet humanity hiding inside the laughs. The scene of three sisters (Chase, Feren, White) reluctantly reconnecting at their grandmother's funeral is a gem of schmaltz-free sentimentality, and Chase and Ragen are devastating in tonally challenging monologues about abortion and homosexuality.
All four women have standout moments, but, as usual, Feren shines brightest, whether as a ghetto ho, a chain-smoking doe, a drooling redneck or a mime beautifying to Bizet. From the celestial start to the fourth-wall-wrecking finale, you won't find a funnier female-driven play in town this fall.
through Sept. 16
Lowndes Shakespeare Center
812 E. Rollins St.