The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s opening week concluded its mini-survey of orphaned characters (also found in Much Ado About Nothing, Cymbeline and The Pirates of Penzance—not to mention 42nd Street being home to many orphans, notably Annie) and celebration of its 60th season with a farcical play whose principal male character (Tom McCamus as Horace Vandergelder is the perfect model of a modern majorly tight-fisted industrial general) has also seen six decades and the revised (Thornton Wilder’s original, The Merchant of Yonkers, failed to catch fire) play’s 1954 première is close enough-for-jazz to make it the logical conclusion of just what Stratford has accomplished since its inaugural season under the tent.
Deservedly lauded for its classical theatre expertise and expanding the mandate via Broadway musicals, of late the festival on Canada’s Avon quietly assembled a crackerjack team of actors, designers and directors that have raised the high society comedy bar to dizzying heights. Probably the most difficult sub-genre to pull off is farce:
A comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations.
The art is to find a troupe who can deliver the zany text but also have the physical skills and timing sensitivity to weave together the non-verbal gags and employ the ever-elusive timing smarts to keep the pace a flown’. Wilder tosses in an even more challenging element as he asks most of the leading characters to ignore their fellows and speak to the audience directly.
Director Chris Abraham has most certainly widened his already considerable theatrical acumen. In just a few months of rehearsals and previews he has plumbed Wilde’s sage and sassy insights to considerable depths and, consequently, moved up the laugh metre several notches. With the only serious exception being the wine glass and food parade during the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant Act (the one major payoff was too far removed to elicit more than a chuckle; the pastries brought back heady visions of The Three Stooges, yet…), the rest of the show tickled everything in sight and still managed to bring home Wilder’s points not least of which was his mighty call to adventure (sixty or not).
Of course, having such a superb cast allowed Abraham the luxury of knowing no one would go away dissatisfied even if everyone merely stood and read the script. To his credit, he was able to deftly keep a lid on the collective hilarity to the point where the show really felt like a many-headed ensemble rather than a couple of shining stars and their supporters (once again echoing Norman Lloyd’s masterfully illustrated reminder just hours earlier at the Interpreting Shakespeare Across Setting and Media that “There are no small parts…”).
The most promising “find” was Josh Epstein’s delightfully boyish (girlish as required) portrayal of Barnaby Tucker. Whether yelling out “Holy Cabooses” in astonishment as the seventeen-year-old had a crash course in the “evils” of New York City (compared to nothing-ever-happens Yonkers) or flitting demurely about the set in skin-saving drag, Epstein drew every inch of mirth from his material without ever upstaging those around him or fading into the wallpaper. More, please.
Head once again squarely on his shoulders following a far-removed character in Cymbeline (cross-reference below), Mike Shara masterfully brought Cornelius Hackl to hilarious life by wisely starting off coolly before revving up his singular physical skills to tears-in-your-eyes movement (his mechanical, pinball walks when the next
Playing three parts (the long-serving-suffering barber, the delectably haughty head waiter and don’t-take-his advice cabman), John Vickery gave a master class of how to mix lines with visage that clearly defined each of his personas and only made everyone wish he had a couple more up his droll sleeve.
Opera-loving (defiling in her madcap sing-along the mercifully brief solo) Nora McLellan came back to the stage as a long-lost friend who has only further matured like a vintage wine playing Miss Flora Van Huysen. There are not many before the public today who can get recurring laughs by opening a fan and mourning their lost illusions. Spectacular was the understated testament to disappointment which—likely inadvertently for the author but not for our times—weighed in on the subject gender flexible, unexpected findings in the nether regions. The thunderous reaction spoke volumes about how far we all have come since Stratford sold its first ticket.
The inciting love interest was readily fleshed out by Cara Ricketts as Ermengarde and Skye Brandon as Ambrose Kemper who served their intended purpose as the romantic glue that kept in the outrageous (happily) plot moving gaily along even as the cantus firmus “The Sidewalks of New York” received several, variable (pitch was not always a friend of the a capella offerings) outings.
Playing the trapped-by-hated-work and also pining for “something to happen,” Laura Condlin made for a charming Irene Molloy while her assistant, Minnie Fay, gave Andrea Runge the opportunity to blossom with the blush of champagne glowing in her cheeks.
The two less-lined but most assuredly not small parts servants both brought howls of delight. Very selective hearing maid Gertrude couldn’t have asked for a more sympathetic portrait than that of Chick Reid, who later ratcheted up her own madcap mania several notches as she flew through her duties as Huysen’s cook with such speed that she threated to levitate above the stage fuelled by the whirling spoon of her mixing bowl.
Victor Dolhai simultaneously brought down the house and his own sad sack lot in life as the bandied about waiter’s “champagne for the mayor” was summarily hijacked. Anyone who can do so much with, seemingly, so little has a bright future ahead indeed.
Malachi Stack, the Philosopher King could really be no one else than Geraint Wyn Davies. More usually pontificating at long-ago courts, he’s brought his best regal tone, and added a dash of wry to share the most compelling audience aside of the lot while extolling the virtues of selecting just one vice and sticking to it. Cheers to that!
Equally authoritarian no matter what sex she’s playing (anyone who missed last year’s Richard III lost out on a truly courageous performance), Seana McKenna was Dolly Gallagher Levi, bringing a whole extra level of meaning to the notion of She-who-must-be-obeyed.
With the success of this fully formed farce, does anyone doubt that before you can say “I do,” Hello Dolly will find its way to the playbill? JWR