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Saturday, August 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 69.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Strangers gather at a haunted B&B in StageQ's Ghost of a Chance
StageQ's <i>Ghost of a Chance</i> is enjoyable, locally grown theater.
StageQ's Ghost of a Chance is enjoyable, locally grown theater.

Could act two Ghost of a Chance by StageQ be a little tighter? Yes. Is the play unnecessarily provocative with sexual innuendo? Sometimes. But the comedy, which opened Friday at the Bartell Theatre, is an enjoyable evening of locally grown theater. With a few fixes, I could see this play being successfully produced by theater companies around the country. You can say you saw it in Madison first.

The Bartell's smaller Evjue stage has successfully been transformed, thanks to excellent work by set designer Eric Appleton, into a convincing bed and breakfast. It is presided over by a former couple, Sally and Tess. They take Halloween seriously, at least in terms of decorating, and they joke about the clattering caused by their resident ghost, Lt. Clem Mason, a Confederate soldier who died in this Gettysburg house. Business has been slowing down and the pink triangle sign in the window isn't enough to keep guests coming.

Sally and Tess bicker and banter as guests trickle in amid a freak October blizzard: Merideth, a famous actress who is hiding out because the paparazzi spotted her making out with a woman; Jo, a paranormal reporter; Lorraine, an auditor the proprietors have paid to evaluate their floundering business. The worsening weather forces Charlotte, a wealthy bon vivant who happens to be a clairvoyant, to take refuge. They're all trapped in the antique-filled house, with the blizzard swirling around them, and the ghost takes the opportunity to possess Charlotte. Laughs, and séances, genuinely do ensue.

The first act is funnier than the second, because meeting these women is more compelling than the paranormal activities that come later. Director Tara Ayres has assembled a talented cast, and I imagine their performances will only improve during the show's run. This is writer Carol Mullen's first full-length play after years of contributing one-acts to StageQ's Queer Shorts series. She has written some very funny lines. A few of those gems get lost here and there because of tentative or scrambled line readings, but the fun isn't diminished.

I was surprised to learn that this is the debut performance of Raven Albrecht as no-nonsense Sally. She convincingly makes this B&B co-owner the voice of reason as chaos sets in. Tess, played by Peggy Rosin, is a nurturing peacemaker when she's not name-checking famous women she's befriended or had trysts with.

Deborah Hamill, as the statistics-loving nerd Lorraine, looks a bit like Heather Matarazzo in Welcome to the Dollhouse and performs a little more broadly than the others. Merideth (pretty Danielle Borman, stuck in an afro wig as part of her disguise) may be the least interesting of the roles, but it is fun to watch her evolving relationship with plucky Jo (Jenny Maahs, believable as a former novelist who couldn't handle success).

The breakout star is Laura Varela as lock-jawed, lascivious Charlotte and gentlemanly ghost Clem. Varela is a gifted actress, and her portrayal of Charlotte is so spot-on that I found myself missing the character when Clem took over.

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