For 40 years, Melliss Kenworthy has played blushing leading ladies in big, showy musicals.
Many actresses get typecast. It comes with the job. And let’s face it: In an industry that values stars, being pigeonholed as the leading lady isn’t exactly a misfortunate.
Yet, Kenworthy has all the makings of a great character actress.
From her big-brimmed sun hat, strawberry bob, sunglasses, gravelly laugh and salty sense of humor, Kenworthy is a striking creature that appears decades younger than her 71 years.
A Katharine Hepburn-meets-Lucille Ball kind of dame, Kenworthy has waited years to showcase her comedic chops.
“Deep down in my heart I’ve always wanted to do comedy and character acting,” Kenworthy says. “But no one would ever give me a part. I was always the straight woman.”
That is, until a Southern, backwoods, bourbon drinking, husband-killer came along.
Now in her third season as a performer with Theatre Odyssey, an annual 10-minute play festival founded by Sarasota actor Tom Aposporos and playwright Larry Hamm, Kenworthy has taken on two new roles: artistic director and Becky Sue –– a trashy, Southern wife wronged by her two-timing husband in the black comedy “Justice Here, Justice There,” by Bradenton playwright Bernard Yanelli.
A longtime Sarasota actress, Kenworthy has easily embodied both.
Within five minutes of walking into the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s new downtown building, which Theatre Odyssey will use for this weekend’s play competition, Kenworthy begins projecting her lines on stage in a tenacious Southern drawl — profanity and all.
“You don’t understand,” Kenworthy hisses. “I had to poison the sonofabitch.”
The monologue continues with the revelation that Kenworthy has just killed her cheating husband by slipping rat poison in his tuna casserole and clobbering him over the head with a shovel.
As the actress swaggers across the stage, her mouth curls downward with each angry and disturbingly funny passage.
“I haven’t read through the lines with my husband,” says Kenworthy, a Harbor Acres resident. “I want him to come to the show and get the full effect at once. He doesn’t eat tuna casserole, so he shouldn’t be worried.”
To visualize Becky Sue, picture Kenworthy in turquoise eye shadow, a low-cut blouse, black bra, tight jeans and gaudy jewelry, sitting spread-eagle in a rocking chair, guzzling from a beer.
“I’ve never had so much fun,” she squeals.
With one 10-minute script, Kenworthy feels as if she’s caught up on decades of lost bad-girl roles.
“I was thrilled when Melliss said she wanted the part,” says Yanelli, a history and economics teacher at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School. “She’s an outstanding actress, and apparently she’s never played anything like this before, which is funny because she can be very saucy.”
Locally, Kenworthy, a Philadelphia native, has appeared on stage with the Banyan Theater Company and The Golden Apple Dinner Theatre.
She volunteered this year to be Theatre Odyssey’s artistic director, because she hoped to bring more recognition to local playwrights by expanding the competition’s awards reception.
“We have such a plethora of talented writers in this community,” Kenworthy says. “I think it’s important to make a big to-do of their work. These plays are their babies. It’s a big deal when they’re able to see them mounted on stage.”
The three-day play festival, which received 54 new submissions this season, was whittled down to seven 10-minute scripts.
Dubbed “Seven in ’11,” the program includes premieres by Yanelli, Paul Argentini, CeCe Dwyer, Larry Parr, Lorene Erickson, Lisa Evans and Connie Schindewolf.
Sitting on the judging panel is novelist Wayne Barcomb, actress Catherine Randazzo and retired Asolo Repertory Theatre Director Howard Millman. The winner of the contest will receive a cash prize following Sunday’s matinee performance.
As an artistic director, she says she would love to organize a catered reception for the festival’s playwrights. However, due to time and space constraints, she’s had to table the plan for next year.
In the meantime, her goal is to do Yanelli’s boozy, foul-mouthed Becky Sue justice by being as lewd and crude as possible.
“I can’t tell you how cathartic it is,” Kenworthy says, tilting the brim on her straw bonnet. “It’s such a good feeling to not be playing a cookie-baking grandmother.”
GOT 10 MINUTES?
Bradenton playwright Bernard Yanelli, author of “Justice Here, Justice There,” gives us his tips on writing a 10-minute script.
• Create a memorable protagonist
“Your character should have extreme personality traits that the audience is either rooting for or against.”
• Add a triggering event
“A triggering event should happen in the first minute or so, and it should be clear to the audience that it’s going to cause tension in the main character’s life.”
• Write a surprise ending
“Most 10-minute plays, or at least comedies, have to have a ‘wow’ finish. The audience loves a payoff.”
• Think competitively
“Competition raises the stakes. It’s why I like entering these play festivals. They’re fun, and they force aspiring playwrights to work harder.”
IF YOU GO
Theatre Odyssey will present its 10-Minute Play Festival, “Seven in ’11” at 8 p.m. April 8 and April 9 and at 2 p.m. April 10, at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe venue, 1646 Tenth Way, Sarasota. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door on the day of the performance. For more information, visit www.theatreodyssey.org.
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]
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Kenworthy delivers a line from the 10-minute play "Justice Here, Justice There."