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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

The Foreigner — Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

Foreigner_17Jim Helsinger is a generous director, and actor Jacob Dresch is a worthy recipient of his liberality and trust.

Dresch proves this during a seemingly improvisational segment of Larry Shue’s hilarious farce, “The Foreigner,” in which Helsinger allows him ten full minutes of stage time to stun the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival audience with his relentless physicality, his remarkable inventiveness, and his ability to take an already comically charged situation and escalate it exponentially to the point he has everyone in the PSF theater immersed in well-earned, well-appreciated hysterics.

Thanks to Helsinger’s bounty, Dresch has a chance to shine in a “Foreigner” has had some solidly strong points but may be so intent on providing laughs, it exposes some of the flaws in Shue’s tight but contrived script. Contrary to the initial description of his character, Dresch is always immediately involved with his setting and ready to use his rubber-made torso, elastic face, and instinct for comic mayhem to create a tour de force performance around the many openings Shue and Helsinger provide him to get laughs.

His ten-minute routine is just one example. It’s like a mimed aria in which a performer goes full tilt at full speed until he reaches a point of mania at which he is exhausted by his effort and his audience is in paroxysms of belly laughs.

Here’s how that sequence happens.

In the second act of “The Foreigner, the lead character, Charlie, played by Dresch, is asked by fellow denizens of a rural Georgia boarding house to tell a story.

This might seem to be a modest request, except the premise of Shue’s intentionally silly comedy is Charlie, brought to Georgia by an English buddy who thinks Charlie would benefit emotionally by time away from London, is painfully shy, has no self-confidence, and believes no one finds him amusing or likeable. Even his dying wife prefers he refrains from sitting at her bedside to comfort her and keep her company. She says his lack of personality bores and depresses her more than her terminal illness does.

Charlie dreads staying in the boarding house while his friend, Froggy, a decorated British soldier, is off in another part of the Georgia wilderness conducting military training for some state militiamen. He begs Froggy to take him to the maneuvers, but Froggy thinks Charlie would be better off in the care of the house’s owner and innkeeper, Betty. To keep Charlie from having to be sociable or needing to make any conversation, Froggy tells Betty that Charlie is a foreigner who speaks no English and cannot communicate by speech.

So you see why Charlie having to tell a story might be a problem.

And a comic opportunity.

By the time Charlie is asked to tell a tale indigenous to whatever unspecified land he is from, he has established an elaborate set of hand and body gestures the Georgians interpret as they will, with Charlie always agreeing with them, usually saying some gibberish Shue made up that sounds like “blazny, blazny.” He has also learned smatterings of English on which he embellishes and thoroughly endeared himself to three of his housemates who think he has plenty of personality and charm.

Of course it makes Dresch all the funnier if Charlie is not trying to be comic while he acts out his story. Whether Shue, Helsinger, and Dresch comes up with the premise — It’s been several years since I saw “The Foreigner,” and I can’t remember Shue’s stage directions for the charade scene. –the choice is to tell a Gothic tale that smacks of the Eastern European tradition Dresch’s suggests with Charlie’s accent and nonsense language he invents as he needs it. The story is about an animal, a monster, who attacks a young girl in the woods in “Little Red Riding Hood” fashion. Dresch plays all of the parts, using his arms and posture to convey childlike bashfulness and modesty as he purrs in a high pitched tone, sort of like Soupy Sales’s Blacktooth, before he has the youngster screaming in his horror at the large, hulking, violent creature he mimes to attack her.

Dresch puts everything into this charade. He looms gigantically as he stretches his arms to their full wingspan and opens his mouth as far as humanly possible to show the drooling horror of his monster. Meanwhile, he coos and screams when reverting back to playing the girl. Everything from mime to dance to comic poses figure into Dresch’s amazing feat of storytelling, made all the more astounding in that is well choreographed but has enough changes of style and seemingly sudden touches to make it seem spontaneous, as if Charlie is goaded on to be bigger and do more to please his delighted audience of housemates. Dresch is drained and drenched as he completes Charlie’s masterwork, but his execution of a difficult acting feat and his ability to make everything seem as if Charlie was the one improvising as he went along, cheered on by his crowd, is flabbergasting in the best and most satisfying way.

NealBoxDresch and the rest of Helsinger’s company have been pretty entertaining even before Dresch’s bravura exhibition. Helsinger obviously made a decision to sacrifice any sense of reality or credibility in Shue’s silly and complicated story to practice the broadest of comedy and eke the maximum number of laughs.

No complaint there, but Helsinger’s approach congratulates and capitalizes on Shue’s intricate plotting while showing the seams in its fabric and exposing “The Foreigner” to be judged better crafted than it is written.

Helsinger eschews logic in Charlie’s progressive command of English. Everything Dresch says as Charlie is, of course, in Shue’s script, but he becomes fluent so quickly, it stretches credibility to a ripping point to think even the innocent yokels at Betty’s boarding house can be fooled for one minute that Charlie doesn’t understand or can’t speak to them in English.

In other productions I’ve seen of “The Foreigner,” the approach was more subtle and invited you more into Shue’s premise. Helsinger seems to see how fruitlessly ridiculous it is to think for one minute people are going to buy into Charlie’s inability to communicate, so he goes for the comic jugular from Charlie’s first introduction to the people that, for a while, he should be trying more diligently to gull.

In the midst of farce, it’s hard, and should be, to see where logic and credibility disappear altogether. That’s because if played with a core of reality, the audience is as involved with seeing when other characters will catch on to what they know that they watch for hints of detection in addition to following the plot. Or they such relax in the nonsense of the proceedings on scene.

In Helsinger’s production, farcical though it is, you see more than makes you question all that is going on.

To make life more interesting than endless variations of how Charlie can make himself so loved and so understood in spite of his inability to communicate by language, Shue adds a large subplot about an allegedly benign preacher and politician actually being the head of a KKK chapter that intends to claim Betty’s house by foreclosure and use her land to foment a white supremacist revolution in the United States.

Pretty heady stuff for a comedy, huh?

Yes it is, and usually the preacher, the Rev. David Marshall Lee, only exists to create some change of pace from Shue’s otherwise pure, and purely enjoyable, inanity and to create some reason why the “good” characters in “The Foreigner” have to bond for more than friendship.

It may be to Helsinger’s credit that he elevates David’s plot to one that legitimately worries the PSF audience, but his choice also reveals some of the flimsier sections of Shue’s writing.

Specifically, it makes you wonder why Charlie, who we know can speak and understand English the best of anyone on stage with the possible exception of David, doesn’t call Froggy at his military base and spill the beans of all he’s learned clandestinely — no pun intended — about the nefarious KKK plot.

Even if the KKK was not in the picture, you’d wonder why Charlie would not tell Froggy or David’s fiancée, Catherine, about David’s villainy considering how drastically it concerns Betty, for whom Charlie’s come to have a deep filial affection.

Instead, you see how Shue delays for forgoes telling Froggy, the one person who could defuse the KKK scheme without putting himself in jeopardy, so he can plot an elaborate way for Charlie, Betty, Catherine, and her dim-witted brother, Ellard, to foil David and his minions in their own comic way.

Normally, things are moving at a pace at which you don’t notice that Charlie has ample chance to apprise Froggy of all that is transpiring between David and his henchmen.

Perhaps more important to Helsinger’s production, the housemates’ plan to catch and discourage the Klansmen works anyway, It’s interesting and gives you a chance to root for and congratulate the characters you find the most endearing.

Foreigner_14One other point has to be made about David’s ascendance as key figure in Helsinger’s staging. As played excellently by Zack Robidas, David is a shrewdie. He’s obvious on to Charlie’s deception. He just can’t seem, in accordance with Shue’s script, to nail him. In a world that did not have Shue’s script, Charlie would not have lasted three minutes before Robidas’s David would dime him out and go about destroying him. Dresch’s invention, as PSF, does not trump Robidas’s innate ability as a detective and inquisitor. You stop believing that David is fooled. You’re left to come up your own conclusions, such as he’ll deal with Charlie later. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in “Hamlet, ” Robidas’s David is hemmed in by the story as written. So what that as presented on stage, Robidas’s David, who is not played in any way as a fool or a hick, has to ignore what is clear to him about Charlie? The production is saved by Shue’s parameters, or this Charlie would have lived to do his charade or hatch his maneuver to catch the Klansmen. If anywhere but on stage, Dresch’s Charlie met Robidas’s David, David would win. Easily.

Realizing this doesn’t mar your enjoyment of “The Foreigner,” but it does raise questions that pushes Shue’s script or Helsinger’s production from the realm of farce to the genre of fantasy.

Shue, Helsinger, and the PSF company have a genuinely good time going through their paces, especially in the scenes in which Charlie first has to practice his silent act while he politely needs to answer questions and, more importantly, needs attention for some reason or other, like wanting to ask for salt (which doesn’t happen but serves as good example of a reason Charlie may want to talk).

To get the communications ball rolling, Helsinger comes up with ideas that show a director’s touch. While Betty takes pride in understanding anything Charlie happens to say, Shue has crafted it so that Charlie, to make Betty feel good about herself, just has Charlie indicate Betty is right in her reading of his gestures no matter what she says. He and Helsinger even have Jane Ridley repeat some of the hand and arm signs Dresch cooks up to inaugurate some byplay.

Helsinger’s plan for Ellard, who is to say the least a slow thinker and slower learner, is for Dresch and castmate David Button to go through a mirror exercise like Harpo Marx used to do in the movies and, famously, opposite Lucille Ball in an “I Love Lucy” episode.

The gambit works. You wonder for a second why Charlie goes along and imitates Ellard as he makes faces and moves about, but you chalk it up to Charlie wanting to be amiable and to be kind to Ellard, who is generally scolded and made to feel bad for his dimness.

It becomes a little more confusing when one of “The Foreigner’s” best known stock bits, Charlie putting an empty glass on his head, as if to indicate he is finished drinking its contents, is done first by Ellard.

The comic value stays the same, and Ridley makes art of how of letting Charlie know he can keep his glass on his head all he wants, but it changes the dynamic a little to have Ellard initiate stage business that is supposed to derive from Charlie making up some of his alleged country’s customs to demonstrate.

Helsinger’s cast is unanimously first-rate. No matter what anyone was asked to do, he or she did it with aplomb. You really feel positive towards the characters Shue deems as good and worry about the harm that might be done by the villainous characters, such as David and his redneck KKK lieutenant, Owen, played with adroit menace by Anthony Lawton.

Jacob Dresch is an irrepressible whirlwind. He gives a master class in comedy while creating an indelible character who comes into his own as a full human being based on being exposed to people who want to relate to him. While you may never fully believe a character like Charlie exists, Dresch endows him with so many talents and such empathy, you are happy he attracts such affection from Betty, Ellard, and Catherine.

When it comes to physical farce, Dresch is hard to beat. He doesn’t have to do much to be funny. You can read the comedy is his face.

That said, Dresch doesn’t rest on laurels as someone who can tell you everything you need to know with bugging eyes or a sly moue. He revels in the physicality of his role, and in the invention necessary to make Charlie understood in a way that amuses rather than annoys. His 10-minute storytelling is one outstanding example of all Dresch can accomplish whether confining his comedy to a simple gesture or going all out in a frenzied extravaganza of bodily and facial contortion.

Carl N. Wallnau uses all of its size and enthusiasm as the hall-fellow-well-met Froggy, whose British dialect and working man’s ways convince he just stepped out of a London pub after an evening of boisterous gregariousness.

Froggy is a prime practitioner of the able and affable British character. He is all high spirits and quick with a line whether it be to get laughs to promote camaraderie among all of the characters.

Wallnau shows Froggy’s pride and competence while making him a big, loveable character who is bound to be the life of every party.

Zack Robidas shines in a glittering cast for his straightforward portrayal of David, who can spout hypocrisy and deception with a face so innocent and language so sincere, you sense immediately how dangerous this country preacher can be.

Robidas is not afraid to show David as the smartest person in the room. He nonchalantly acts bits that tell Charlie and us that he is a villain, such as taking one bite from an apple and tossing the remainder into a basket in which Betty keeps kindling so Betty will find the ruined apple and blame Ellard for wasting her food.

Robidas is a shrewd, calculating, articulate David who really makes you nervous when he seems thisclose to exposing Charlie as a fraud. In some ways, Robidas’s instinct that something doesn’t quite add up about Charlie fuels his contempt as a Klansman for foreigners and justifies, in his mind, his movement to take over a piece of America and spread his campaign from there.

Anthony Lawton is perfect as Owen, a backwoods kind of guy who is put off by David’s subtlety and sophisticated. Owen is the kind of warrior who wants no prisoners and desires to spring into violent action to create the society he wants. He is especially mean to Charlie and Ellard, and the menace Lawton shows is magnified by the realization of how much Owen likes to be sadistic and hurt people.

As serious and threatening as Lawton can be is also how funny he can be. While retaining his tough exterior, he reveals Owen as a raving fool and true believer of everything the Klan stands for. This is skillful performance in the way it integrates genuine intimidation with impressionable gullibility and blends peril with comedy.

Marnie Schulenburg does a nice turnaround as Catherine who moves from being haughty, spoiled, and proud to be the future wife of the Rev. David Marshall Lee, to being a warm, empathetic person who may see through Charlie but says nothing because she likes things as they are, with Charlie being a confidante who can’t understand English and, therefore, can’t tell any of Catherine’s secrets.

Jane Ridley is so natural, you’re not sure she’s acting. Whether talking to Froggy about her financial troubles or mutually ingratiating herself with Charlie, Ridley’s Betty conveys and attracts the right emotion and spirit. Even when Betty is a bit silly in her reading of Charlie’s gestures, you feel for her an admire her basic common sense and acceptance of reality.

Ridley looks so happy and proud while playing Betty believing she alone intuitively knows Charlie’s language and can get through to him. The actress breaks your heart is a sequence in which it’s clear she misread Charlie’s pantomimed stoiry. Of course, Charlie makes everything “all better” by assuring Betty what she thought was accurate.

Ridley doesn’t have to work at being funny. Her casual readings of Betty’s dialogue speak volumes about her talent. Ridley is the one performer who earns her laughs and our affection by seeming so real and so right for her situation.

David Button eventually wins your regard, but his early portrayal of Ellard is a little too cartoonish and stereotypical. Ellard is the one character you can’t wait to see go offstage. His interactions with Charlie seems the most unlikely. The good news is on the PSF stage, they never feel forced. Helsinger has Charlie and Ellard come to an immediate understanding based on Charlie recognizing Ellard’s shortcomings. The idea works, and Ellard becomes less grating as the production proceeds.

Like Dresch, Button is a fine physical comedian, so the mirror scene works exquisitely. Button is also good at stressing Ellard’s language difficulties as he’s teaching Charlie to speak English. He instructs Charlie to say, “foh-ork,” pointing out the word has two syllables and getting miffed by Charlie repeats back the correct pronunciation, “fork.”

The cabin Bob Phillips designed looks cozy and inhabitable. You can see why Betty wants to hold on it and restore it as a Bed & Breakfast. Marla Jurglanis’s costumes are excellent. I especially like that she dressed David in a bright blue shirt that initially made him more disarming than a suit would have.

“The Foreigner” runs through Sunday, August 2, at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, in the Labuda Arts Center on the DeSales University campus,, 2755 Station Avenue, in Center Valley, Pa. Showtimes are scattered because of “The Foreigner” being in repertory with “Henry V.” In general show begin at 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Tickets range from $54 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 610-282-WILL (610-282-9455) or by visiting www.pashakespeare.org which can also be consulted to check the performance schedule.

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