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'Firecracker Contest' lights up the night


Six strangely likable characters came to life on the Felten-Start Theatre stage during the weekend as the Fort Hays State University Music and Theatre Department presented "The Miss Firecracker Contest."

Set in the 1970s in the small southern town of Brookhaven, Miss., "The Miss Firecracker Contest" is the saga of Carnelle Scott (Brenna Cole, Andale junior), who attempts to redeem her broken life and reputation as "Miss Hot Tamale" by winning a less-than-prestigious beauty contest.

"It's a stupid, idiotic contest," her cousin Delmount Williams (Timothy Tarkelly, Chanute senior) tells her in the second act. "You'll do just fine."

Cole is quirky -- yet cute -- in her role, with flaming red hair and a penchant for the melodramatic. She delivered plenty of laughs with a fall down on the floor fit, as she reacted to her misfortunes as a beauty pageant contestant.

The play was written by Beth Henley and was premiered in New York City by the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1984. It was adapted to film in 1989, with Holly Hunter starring as Carnelle.

Although some dialogue was inaudible, losing what one could imagine were some pretty good zingers, the cast delivered with comedic timing smatterings of irony and self-effacing satire.

Jill Herbert, Wichita sophomore, as Elaine Rutledge and Tarkelly worked well together, playing siblings from a dysfunctional family. Tarkelly was both disturbed and disturbing in his role as a psychotic recently released from an asylum, while Herbert was silky and somewhat to be pitied as a former "Miss Firecracker."

Each character had a bizarre back-story, so most of the first act was spent trying to bring the audience members up to speed as to why they should care whether or not Carnelle won a small-town beauty contest. Although the characters often were truly morose, as a native of a small town myself, I think I might have grown up with several folks who distinctly resembled each one.

Under the direction of Tomme Williams, FHSU instructor of theater, the FHSU student actors were both entertaining and poignant in their roles. However, some of the interaction between characters played out a little stiffly, lacking the spark of authentic connections.

Gabe Bristow, senior, Lakewood, Colo., played Mac Sam and did a lot of hacking. He was somewhat convincing as a syphilitic former boyfriend of Carnelle, caring and yet ultimately quite sleazy. Jera Gale, Coldwater sophomore, played Tessy Mahoney, the big-haired, somewhat-requited love interest of Delmount.

Popeye, a very odd seamstress character played by Sarah Werling, Solomon junior, provided a few "whaa?" moments for the audience. But the final scene with Tarkelly and Werling was touching and somehow made it feel OK to be an outcast.

Dawne Leiker is a frequent contributor to The Hays Daily News