All Things Entertaining and Cultural
On the 1936 evening when Edward VIII is set to abdicate the British throne and pass the majesty of the crown to his brother, George VI to be, another brother plots to take the place of his sibling.
Evelyn Farrant is an actor of some talent and much theatrical flair who is suspected of an underhanded deed that eroded his welcome on the West End. A man with champagne taste and a tap water budget, he feels as if he has been blocked unfairly from achieving his rightful place on the London stage and in life in general. He is particularly envious of his identical twin brother, Rupert, who has overcome the squalor, poverty, and precarious living arrangements of the twins’ youth to become a wealthy man, one who is accepted in the loftiest tiers of British society and who lives with an ease and style Evelyn craves.
The question is how to manage the switch. Rupert, barely aware of his brother’s existence, is abdicating nothing.
That question is answered early in Gerald Moon’s comic thriller, Corpse!, which is given a brisk yet absorbing production at Rose Valley’s Hedgerow Theatre where the play’s fine line between farce and mystery is tread with casual aplomb, director Liam Castellan and his cast assuring the laughs while taking full advantage of all the clues and twists Moon deftly provides for them.
Moon’s script does such a shrewd job at revealing what you need to know when you need to know it, and at keeping you guessing about what might happen next to thwart or advance Evelyn’s nefarious intentions, that it focuses your attention on every detail of his characters’ words, actions, and behavior. In addition to picking up the numerous plot devices, your heightened attention sets up the jokes, set pieces, and character nuances that make Castellan’s staging a satisfying delight. Emphasized comedy keeps the mood relaxed and amiable while the reality of what is happening, and all that can go wrong (or even right), provides the right amount of suspense. Castellan has chosen to keep Corpse! light and loose, almost like a drawing room comedy with a crime involved. The approach works, but given the tautness in Moon’s script, it would be fun to see his play one day when the sinister and more unnerving aspects are stressed. It’s not that I prefer one style over the other. I’d just like to see and compare the difference.
Hedgerow’s Corpse! has as much charm as it does tension, and among the reason it exudes both is a simultaneously sophisticated and physical performance by the remarkable Carl Nathaniel Smith.
The “Nathaniel” is new, most likely an addition to Smith’s stage name at the suggestion or insistence of Actors’ Equity, in which Smith earns full membership status with this show. (Congratulations!)
Under any name, Smith has proven to be a versatile and energetic presence on Hedgerow’s and other stages during his years in the Philadelphia area. He has made such a habit of playing multiple characters, changing costumes and tone in a heartbeat, and taking pratfalls with the insouciance of Dick Van Dyke, it was an enlightening and refreshing surprise to see his poise as the elegant, reserved Mr. Darcy, in Hedgerow’s staging of Pride and Prejudice last spring.
Smith’s skill as a chameleon serves him well in the dual role of Evelyn and Rupert Farrant. Keeping the characters human and believable while avoiding stock poses and attitudes, Smith complicates Evelyn’s situation by making you genuinely like both brothers. As Evelyn, he is all “darling” and West End gaiety, even when he’s dead serious. As Rupert, he displays an unpracticed grace, a vision of man comfortable with and unimpressed by the luxury and the absence of financial worry he has achieved. His Evelyn can be tight as a tiger or free as a sparrow. His Rupert is always in line with good taste and convention. All the differences in personality are seamlessly managed, a more challenging task than it may seem because both brothers are aware of proud of their favorable appearance, and Smith doesn’t change his grooming while he’s exchanging roles.
Best of all, Smith is an entertainer. From his first scene you see how clever Evelyn is as a person and how meticulously adept Smith is at creating a character. Smith’s isn’t necessarily the kind of performance that attracts awards, but it is one that shows his overall merit as an actor. As has happened before at Hedgerow, his performance drives the production. Smith does more than play his roles with wit and dexterity. He literally plays the lead, guiding his fellow performers in pace and tone and endowing the production with energy.
Smith has a good foil in Shaun Yates, whose characters grows in importance as Corpse! proceeds. Yates, while handling his role’s comic aspects well and fitting in with the comic tone Castellan prescribes, gives his character a serious, confused side. He also provides darkness and danger than contrasts well with Smith’s breezy approach (that also leaves occasional room for darkness).
Yates conveys a man who is out of his depth. His character, Major Powell, enters the play as a petty criminal Evelyn recruits to further his plot. He is not ready for the complexity of Evelyn’s mind or directions. He is certainly not prepared to hear the reason Evelyn chose him over for the job over the many equally qualified thugs of London.
Susan Wefel, another master of characterization, amuses grandly as a boozy, flirtatious landlady who loves gossip, suggests amorous escapades, and is enamored enough of Evelyn to hope he will requite her overtures, especially since she is constantly forgiving his non-payment of the rent.
Smith, Yates, and Wefel share a particularly funny scene in that involves Powell having to impersonate one of the Farrant brothers while holding a conversation with the landlady.
Zoran Kovcic is once again spot-on in a minor role as a policeman.
Corpse! runs at the Hedgerow, 64 Rose Valley Road in Rose Valley, Pa., through Sunday, October 8. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday (Sept. 11 and Oct. 2) and Sunday. Tickets range from $32 to $25 with discounts for seniors, young adults, and students. They can be ordered by calling 610-565-4211 or going online to http://www.hedgerowtheatre.org/.
Photo: Left to right, Shaun Yates and Carl Nathaniel Smith