Monday, August 29, 2016

A Forced Farce

What the Butler Saw -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru Sept. 10

Chris Ghaffari and Julian Gamble
Photo by Carol Rosegg


Farce and agendas are strange bedfellows. Farce is, by its very nature, silly, a lighthearted romp, but when you also “have something to say,” as the playwright Joe Orton did when he penned What the Butler Saw in the late 60s, you run the risk of working, or writing, at cross purposes. The inclusion of “messages” in farce is not a problem if they deal with eternal verities, but Orton’s concerns – the taking of Freudian psychology to unsupportable conclusions and the repressed nature of British society – now are covered in cobwebs. Thus, we have the “slamming door” elements of farce bearing a burden they shouldn’t be asked to carry. Those not cued into what was on Orton’s mind as he wrote What the Butler Saw may find themselves scratching their heads, mumbling “Really?”

That there is an agenda is manifest in the play’s title, for there is no butler in the play. The title refers to a device called a mutoscope, a precursor of motion pictures. As soon as it was invented (late 19th century) it was put to pornographic use. Those voyeuristically inclined could, after dropping a coin in a slot, view a succession of pictures. In the case of “What the Butler Saw,” it’s a keyhole view of the lady of the house stripping down to her underwear. Not surprisingly, this particular offering was extremely successful and profitable.

Then there’s the Freudian slant. From Orton’s diary (parts of which are reprinted in the program): “I thought how fashionable madness is at the moment…” Not just madness, however, but the whole concept of repressed desires and the sexuality of children (real and imagined) that lurks in the subconscious of their adult selves.

So, what’s the problem? Well, the characters in a farce, as in all plays, must have believable motivations if the audience is to “buy in.” In the case of Butler, that motivation is suspect right from the start, for the early actions of one of the lead characters serves Orton’s agenda rather than being intrinsic to the character. As the curtain rises, we are in the office of Dr. Prentice (Robert Stanton), a psychiatrist who runs a mental institution (again from Orton’s diary: “…there isn’t a lunatic in sight – just the doctors and nurses.”). A door opens and in walks Geraldine (Sarah Manton), an applicant for a secretarial job. It soon becomes evident that she is woefully under-qualified, so the good doctor’s reaction is to ask her to take off her clothes so he can “examine” her. Surprisingly, Geraldine complies with this odd request…and we are off to the races…and the head-scratching.

Of course, the good doctor’s wife, Mrs. Prentice (Patricia Kalember) walks in on the proceedings, followed by a bell hop, Nicholas (Chris Ghaffari) who has had a recent sexual encounter with the doctor’s wife (and has pictures to prove it – ah, sweet blackmail). Next appears Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead), a government official charged with evaluating Prentice’s institute, and finally a police officer, Sergeant Match (Julian Gamble), who is investigating claims that Nicholas has dallied with a group of schoolgirls. What follows is a lot of cross-dressing and Freudian babble, mostly delivered by the incomparable Whitehead, and a wrap-up that is part Dickens, part Shakespeare with a bit of deus ex machina thrown in for good measure and, oh yes, the idea that sex in a closet can save a marriage.

This was all heady, even scandalous, stuff when it first appeared – the rattling of the skeletons (and other items – or people) in the British closet. Five decades on it seems, at best, inane. The production, directed by John Tillinger, does have its moments, most of them compliments of Whitehead, who has the unique ability to be both pompous and befuddled at the same time. The rest of the cast members, many in various states of undress, do their best to make what is going on believable, but it’s an up-hill battle. Kalember, who for much of the evening is dressed as a dominatrix, has to fight against her costuming to be taken seriously, while Manton has to sell that she willingly disrobes for the doctor and then, with equal willingness, goes along with Prentice’s desperate attempts to hide the fact that he tried to seduce her. Why should she?

As the bell boy, Ghaffari has to sell that what he really wants is to become Prentice’s secretary (go figure) or maybe he’s just into blackmail, or…, Gamble is required to be oblivious to what is happening, and Stanton must be the engine that drives this ill-conceived train as it rattles and wobbles down the track.

All in all, Butler probably reads better than it plays, because with a reading you can ponder and savor much of Orton’s jabs at British society and Freudian excessiveness circa 1970 (if you care to), but a play is meant to be staged. Though there was much laughter on opening night, it was not uproarious, and looking around at the audience there were many who were silent, because much of what is happening up on the stage is simply no longer funny, if it ever was.

What the Butler Saw runs through Sept. 10. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Four Characters in Search of a Plot

Quartet -- Sharon Playhouse -- Thru Aug. 28

  Greg Mullavey (Wilfred), Elizabeth Franz (Jean), 
Joseph Hindy (Reginald), and Patricia McAneny
(Cecily). Photo by Randy O'Rourke
You know how it is when you visit the old folks. They tend to ramble a bit as they weave past achievements and present problems together into a pastiche that has meaning primarily for them. You listen dutifully, for they deserve respect and attention, but there’s no avoiding a certain disconnect. Such is the case with Quartet, which recently opened at the Sharon Playhouse. You understand that what the four characters in the play are talking about is important to them, but you can’t help but wonder why it should be important to you. Perhaps this is because Ronald Harwood, the playwright, wrote a play where what is at stake seems to be little more than the pot in a penny-ante poker game.

The setting for what is essentially a drawing room play (or parlor or salon play) is a music room, pleasingly designed by Michael Schweikardt, in a retirement home for aging artists who have fallen on hard times. As the play opens we meet Reginald (Joseph Hindy), Cecily (a.k.a. “Sissy” – Patricia McAneny) and Wilfred (Greg Mullavey), all former opera singers who are fixated on an upcoming celebration at the home scheduled for Oct. 10, Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday (Sissy refers to him as “Joe Green”). The residents of the home will perform in “Joe’s” honor.

Each of the characters has minor quirks: Reginald is aloof as he seeks to find a satisfactory definition for “art”; Sissy drifts in and out of reality and often welcomes people home from Karachi, though they have not travelled beyond the confines of the home; and Wilfred strives to maintain a faux randiness that his age precludes. Into this mix comes Jean (Elizabeth Franz), a true diva who was once married (very briefly) to Reginald. Her appearance allows the three residents to consider the possibility of them performing the quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto. Jean will initially have nothing to do with it.

Of course, there are back stories and reveals, but the back stories are not very interesting and the reveals can only elicit polite yawns, for there is nothing truly dark or devastating lurking in the background, thus there is nothing up for grabs. Hence, what director John Simpkins has to work with are four character studies of people who, in the long run, are simply not very interesting.

This is unfortunate, for the cast members have distinguished pedigrees and work hard to bring their characters to life. McAneny is engagingly ditzy as Sissy, Hindy gives us a troubled persona who maintains a fa├žade of intellectuality, Mullavey is a wonderful “dirty old man” and Franz is an ideal diva who clings to her former glory as a drowning sailor might to a life raft. Fine performances all. Thus, the enjoyment to be found in watching Quartet emanates from style and thespian talent rather than content.

Quartet runs through Aug. 28. For tickets call (860) 364-7469 (ext. 201 in the summer/ext. 100 in the winter) or go to http://sharonplayhouse.org/theatre/tickets/

Saturday, August 6, 2016

A Bifurcated "Rent"

Rent -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru August 28



There’s something strange going on out at Ivoryton Playhouse. No, it’s not that the venerable establishment is boarding Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” although the choice is a bit daring for Ivoryton. Rather, it’s that there are actually two shows up there on the stage: with the first act often unintelligible with regards to relationships and exactly what is going on, and the second act a clear, engaging exploration of relationships in extremis.

“Rent” is essentially a sung-through musical, which means there is minimum dialogue. Hence, you absolutely need to hear what is being sung by the various characters to understand what is going on (unless you’ve Googled the musical and are prepared). This seems to be the major problem in the first act – the characters are singing and interacting but, well, you often really can’t understand what they are saying, or singing. Obviously, a big problem, and it’s not one that just one person experienced.

“Rent” is, admittedly, a “loud” musical, but director Jacqueline Hubbard has done a lot to tone down the overall impact – the six-member orchestra is hidden below the stage rather than featured upper stage, as is often the case in productions of this musical (normally with stacks of amps and speakers to blow you out of your seats). Still, there’s a problem, mainly that a lot of the lyrics seem to mesh together into a “mush” of sound. Perhaps it has to do with Tate Burmeister’s sound design, or maybe everything should just be slowed down a beat or two to allow for the sung “dialogue” to register – perhaps this will happen once the production settles in.

And then, magically, the second act begins and the verbal “fog” disappears and everything becomes crystal clear and the pathos inherent in the show comes to the fore. Given the aforementioned challenges, there are a lot of fine performances up there on the stage as the cast presents an updated version of Puccini’s La Boheme, now set on the Lower East Side of Manhattan as the AIDs virus rears its ugly head.

Of special note is Alyssa Gomez’s Mimi, the doomed courtesan (if that’s what she is) who asks Roger (Johnny Newcomb) if he will light her candle as she attempts to make a human connection. Also prominent is Stephanie Genito as Maureen (her performance exudes sensuality), the lady who is sung about by her former lover, Mark (Tim Russell), and current lover, Joanne (Maritza Bostic) in “Tango: Maureen.”

One doesn’t know how long the cast and crew had for technical rehearsals, but there are some lighting problems – when the cast is arranged across the front of the stage (especially in the signature “Seasons of Love” number), those positioned extreme stage right and left are almost in the dark (perhaps they are meant to be), and often the follow spots seem to be chasing the actors rather than anticipating their movements. It’s also not obvious if some of the actors are missing their marks or the specials (instruments meant to illuminate a specific character) are not precisely positioned.

As mentioned, the second act magically comes alive. Unfortunately, on opening night, technology failed to do its job. Some in the audience might have been a bit confused as to why projections were running extreme stage right while the entire cast was gathered stage center for the moving finale. Bad directing choice? No, the computer froze and there was no way to reboot it unless the show was stopped, so the projections kept on running. Thus are the vagaries and vicissitudes of live theater.

Staging Rent is a roll of the dice for Ivoryton, given the theater’s demographics and location. In speaking with Hubbard prior to the opening night performance (after several previews), she said that she has received several e-mail protests, including one from a minister who, she said, hadn’t even seen the show. Thus, kudos to Ivoryton and Hubbard for even considering the musical, and if some first-act problems can be ironed out, the evening will be the engaging, heartfelt experience it is supposed to be. 

Rent runs through August 28. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.