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Posted Oct 15, 2011, 10:48 am
It’s autumn and a new crop of students are starting their turn in the University of Arizona’s theatre program. And here we face a fundamental question - which is more important: the students’ learning experience or the audiences’ entertainment?
The question is relevant, because a student actor can learn a lot from being in a comedy that isn’t getting many laughs. When the work is the classic Noël Coward farce, “Hay Fever,” you certainly can’t blame the material. And to be fair and accurate (no, really), the audience of mostly students and season ticket holders on the second night of the run did warm up beyond an occasional chuckle by the second act. But the audience was painfully silent throughout what should have been a rollicking first act and did not give the standard standing O at the end of the evening.
For a third of the nine actors, this is their first Arizona Repertory Theatre appearance and the second appearance for a fourth student. At UA’s request this year, critics have been asked to not review the opening night performances. This is a reasonable request, because Wednesday opening night performances at ART are stacked with the cast’s friends, family and a mostly student audience. The audience response is more enthusiastic and forgiving; the acting, broader and more confident. This effect was evident last season, when a repeat viewing of “Into The Woods,” several weeks after opening night, was merely great, rather than incredible.
1924's “Hay Fever” is a simple farce: a weekend at the country home of the ironically named Bliss family, whose four members have each invited a guest with vague romantic notions. The central character, Judith Bliss, is a drama queen, recently retired from her ego-fueled stage career. Her distracted husband David is a successful, though not very good, novelist.
Their semi-adult children, Sorel and Simon, are egocentric twits, much like their parents. They are also caricatures of the affectedly bored idle rich during the roaring 20’s, and unlike their parents, don’t even have the redeeming qualities of career or success.
The family’s four guests and potential lovers are a cross-section of the era’s socio-economic strata: a boxer, a lower class flapper, a diplomat and an upper-class seductress. Judith’s former wardrobe assistant, now the family’s disinterested maid, rounds out the cast.
So on the second performance of the run, after a couple of previews and what was, hopefully, a joyous and exuberant opening night, the first act lagged. In the opening scene, Sorel (Georgia Harrison) and Simon (Taylor Rascher) set the stage with banter. Judith (Megan Davis) makes her entrance, turning the moment overtly theatrical, reliving scenes from her career in over-the-top absurdity. David (Joe Hubbard) momentarily appears from his study in his underwear before retreating back upstairs. Then the guests begin arriving.
The noticeable lack of laughs in what is potentially very funny and at times scathing dialogue was mostly due to the distracting gestures and odd physicality that Rascher, and to a lesser extent, Harrison, gave their characters.
You can’t blame Rascher for flopping around on the floor like a petulant infant, or for bounding across the room, delivering backward foot kicks as punctuation, or generally leaping about like Dick Van Dyke on speed. Director Stephen Wrentmore is the culprit here. Rascher’s extravagant gestures as Simon eventually paid off as a mirror for Judith, but until she had the opportunity to anchor those movements, the opening scenes were merely awkward and weird.
Another problem is the director’s decision to minimize the characters’ socio-economic differences. The characters British accents, rather than stratified, were too similar, except for the maid’s overt Cockney, though shallow accents also rendered the dialogue more comprehensible. The gorgeous costuming failed to delineate the character’s origins, i.e. the maid’s overly flashy two-toned shoes or the boxer’s leather driving gear, making him look like a brilliant aviator, rather than a lowly pugilist at his first appearance. Downplaying the class differences undercut the comedy of manners that Coward intended. Wrentmore, who is also associate artistic director at Arizona Theatre Company, is himself British and would understand both the historical basis and the mannerisms of these class distinctions better than most Americans, so it was a curious choice.
Timing, so important in farce, was also an issue. This was obvious in the scenes where the timing worked well, drawing gaffaws. The audience laughed freely at the hilariously stilted conversation between flapper Jackie Coryton (Caitlin Stegemoller) all aspiration and eagerness, and Richard Greatham (Chris Karl) an overly reserved diplomat far from his comfort zone. (Karl stole most of the scenes he was in by being Pythonesque.) Likewise, the humorous lightning-paced conversation between Hubbard and Davis as husband and wife was in sharp contrast to the less engaging pace of Harrison and Rascher as brother and sister. The ensemble slapstick of the final act worked while Rascher’s acrobatics in the opening act didn’t.
Throughout the evening there were moments when scenes jelled. Owen Virgin as boxer Sandy Tyrell had several comic moments and showed leading man potential. Michelle Luz, as the upper class Myra Arundel, had good chemistry in her seduction scene with Hubbard, but the character exists primarily to provide contrast to both Sorel and Jackie. Lauren Miller as Clara, the maid, had a recurring gag answering the door that got funnier each time.
The ART presentation of “Hay Fever” is not a bad production – there were laughs, an incredible set (kudos to MFA candidate Michelle A. Bisbee) and lots of earnest, well-executed acting. On this night, Coward’s droll work simply did not reach its full potential. The young troupe probably learned a lot as a result.