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Photo courtesy of GS Katz Photography

John Richardson, left, William Coyne, Meagan Kirby and Jeff Ripley appear in Collaborative Theatre Project's "Moonlight and Magnolias."

‘Moonlight and Magnolias’ like a sitcom with bite

“Moonlight and Magnolias” is comedy with a bitter bite, a satiric spoof of the making of “Gone with the Wind” in 1939. Directed by Obed Medina and Beth Boulay, the play opened last week at the Collaborate Theatre Project in Medford.

“Gone with the Wind” is one of America’s most beloved cultural icons, a bestseller in 1936 when it was published and still popular today. The book, and its 1939 film adaptation, romanticized the pre–Civil War South, perpetrated racial stereotypes and gladdened the American public desperately in need of a Depression-era lift.

“Moonlight and Magnolias,” first produced in 2004, is only nominally about “Gone with the Wind” and instead is a three-person sitcom loosely based on the movie that involves film producer David O. Selznick, director Victor Fleming and writer Ben Hecht.

Over budget and behind schedule, Selznick brings in Hecht to rewrite the script and Fleming to execute his vision. The problem is that Hecht hasn’t read the 1,037-page book and has no idea how to write the script. So scene by scene, Selznick and Fleming act out the chapters as Hecht types away.

John Richardson is Selznick and plays the role with brash, bold confidence, a big guy who refuses to be swayed from his single-minded purpose — to make a blockbuster that will prove his worth and bring in the bucks.

Jeff Ripley plays Fleming, a good-looking guy who frames scenes with his hands, his eye the camera. Fleming doesn’t really care about the subject; he just wants to make a movie. The moral center of the show is Ben Hecht, and William Coyne is ideally cast as this cautious, anxious, thinking man. Together they are the perfect combination of money, action and words, attended to by Meagan Kirby in the role of Selznick’s secretary, Miss Poppenghul.

What’s hilarious about “Moonlight and Magnolias” is that it is really a microcosm of “Gone with the Wind,” a three-person parody of one of history’s most successful films. Richardson, Ripley and Coyne really make the scenes work to great effect. They are increasingly crazed, disheveled and exhausted as their characters are locked away to work in Selznick’s office.

There’s a repeat of Scarlett’s frantic and unsuccessful effort to leave Atlanta before the Yankees come — when Fleming and Hecht try to break out of the office confinement: they only want to go home (to Tara). Richardson, Ripley and Coyne’s clothing is progressively more torn and tattered, as is Scarlett’s, as the South descends into ruin. The baby aborning and the slap scene descend into a Marx Brothers skit, overly long just as some scenes in the book and film versions of “Gone with the Wind” try our patience.

Scarlett’s famous “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again” sort of shows up in Selznick’s insistence that Fleming and Hecht exist on bananas and peanuts, and the CTP set is increasingly disrupted, littered with banana peels, crumpled paper — a reframing of the burning of Atlanta and the destruction of the plantations.

Kirby in a splendid red suit steps in periodically, her neat bun messier each time she delivers more peanuts or resets the furniture.

That’s the comic side of “Moonlight and Magnolias,” and Richardson, Ripley, Coyne and Kirby are superb at this 1940s-era shtick.

The darker side of the production surfaces through the perspective of Hecht, and here again Coyne shines. Coyne’s earnest and pointed comments remind the cast and audience that much of what we accept as historical fact or as entertainment in “Gone with the Wind” is historically inaccurate and morally wrong.

Coyne’s voice becomes hoarse and more powerful when he argues against slavery, abuse, superficiality and deceit. Coyne’s small frame becomes larger when he goes up against Richardson’s big-personality Selznick, reminding him of their shared Jewish identity, their outsider status. Hecht warns Selznick time and again of their class-bound society, of the persecution of Jews in Europe, reframing the similar troubles never acknowledged in Margaret Mitchell’s storied “Gone with the Wind.”

Opening night at CTP was an extravaganza worthy of “Gone with the Wind’s” premiere at Loew’s Grand in Atlanta. 1930s sequins and boas competed with Civil War-era hooped skirts and crinoline, thanks to Renaissance Rose. Soft Southern accents were easy on the ear, and Porters restaurant served a bountiful repast of shrimp and savories.

“Moonlight and Magnolias” runs about two hours with a 15-minute intermission and continues through June 24. Tickets are $18-$25, and can be purchased at ctporegon.com, by calling 541-779-1055 and at the box office, 555 Medford Center.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

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