It’s a great year for women on stage. In Toronto, where the matronly Hummingbird Centre has been jilted by an ambitious COC (Canadian Opera Company) for an acoustically superb but outwardly plain new salle des arts, the abandoned monolith has countered by filling its humungous stage with the first-ever visit of Radio City Music Hall’s lithe and leggy Rockettes. Four hours west on Highway 401, nearly three-dozen undergrads have spectacularly descended onto the boards of the University of Windsor’s Essex Theatre to deliver Clare Boothe Luce’s three-act revenge fuck with verve, panache and, well, abandon.
Seventy years after beginning a long run on Broadway, this tale of the rich and infamous Manhattan set is as funny (the Mrs. Haines vs. Mrs. Haines/Mrs. Fowler vs. Ms. Fowler twin cat fight in a powder room is still a marvel of the believably absurd), thoughtful (young, divorced children anywhere will empathize with the totally perplexed girl who fears that if her mother can stop loving Daddy, then she could well be next)and timeless (the select few in every audience who have strayed—and especially those currently in the throes of partner duplicity—will either squirm for three hours or vow to find another hiding place for their telltale evidence).
Fortunately for all concerned, Rod Ceballos is directing. Previous successes of molding large, multilevel casts into cohesive ensembles, stickling attention to detail (in his hands the mid 1930s comes alive in sight, sound and sense) and a comedic instinct that seldom falters (lemon pie will never seem the same, yet the revelation “spit out” seems a gallon too full—cross-references below), keeping everyone fully engaged.
The production team has translated Ceballos’ vision brilliantly. The metaphorical motif of the relationship-ruining triangle doubling into diamonds on the walls and floor underscores the play’s themes of infidelity and greed with subtle style. The moveable walls keep the show rolling along and allow for effective bits of business (French maid Helene—Allie Boak—draws a smile as she swabs the stage with a janitor’s mop) to be sprinkled into the fun. Agatha Knelsen has performed a miracle of resources by draping and accessorizing the belles with costumes and hair that delight the eye and reinforce the ironic affluence at the height of the Great Depression. Still, it’s Crystal Allen’s (played with effective connivance by Erin Polatynski) bathroom scene that will keep the men’s interest and cause a few of their partners to re-enroll at the gym even as the literal soap opera chatter seals Mrs. Haines II’s fate.
Michelle Alexander’s Mary Haines has a wonderful Our Miss Brooks quality that convincingly morphs from blind obedience to entrapment, exposure and victory that will give hope to the loved then discarded everywhere. The scheming Sylvia is served up with aplomb by Nicole Maroon; perpetually pregnant Edith has an able advocate in Stephanie Goldman. Aside from wailing that is too-loud by half, Jessica Rose largely succeeds as Little Mary—representing the millions of puzzled and distraught offspring of broken homes everywhere. Jamie McLaren renders the brash and broad character of Countess de Lage in a manner that effectively balances the “if looks could kill” and tone that drips with disdain for her colleagues.
Yet by the time the Mrs. Haines bake-off has been resolved, it’s only to wonder if the “victory” of reclaiming an unfaithful, lying partner is as shallow as the combatants—whether or not they sport “jungle-red claws.” JWR