All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Quickies Again — Rumors (Bristol), Saint Joan (Quintessence)

rumors -- interiorRUMORS, Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pa., through Sunday, April 17 — Neil Simon knows how to structure a play and give characters tics and neuroses that individualize them and keep them comic throughout a production. The problem with his farce, “Rumors” is anxieties, obsessions, and injuries aside, only two of the characters populating this comedy, a cook and her psychiatrist husband, are people you’d want to meet, and the plot is so flimsy and inconsequential only the slightest scooch of curiosity keeps you involved in it.

The key to doing “Rumors” is inventing hijinks, a number of which Simon supplies, and timing. Keith Baker’s cast certainly has the second. Baker’s production moves like a well-oiled machine with the added virtue of not going so fast, it loses you in the frenzy. The production also has its share of cleverly considered shtick. But as entertaining as Baker and his cast try to make “Rumors,” the weak flapdoodle of a play gets in the way. Funny as some bits are, you just don’t care about what’s going on. No amount of comic tummeling can keep this vehicle from stalling at the gate. Jo Twiss, Jessica Wagner, and Eleanor Handley strive to infuse the piece with something that resembles substance, but Simon never puts anything at stake for them to seize on and work to make happen. Leonard C. Haas makes a comic aria of a desperate speech that turns out to be ironically intuitive towards the end of the second act, but while you admire the actor’s skill, you resent Simon making so much ado about less than nothing. (A physical impossibility, I know, but there you have it.)

The characters are to blame as much as the plot. They are about as interesting as the holes on an unclogged salt shaker, stereotypes of the professional well-heeled that have nothing to recommend them as people to watch or care about. They border on the infantile and the despicable, From the minute Valerie Leonard, as the first guest at a 10th anniversary party for close friends, whines her first and typically Simonesque “Oh, my God,” while looking in her compact mirror, you know kvetching and moaning will be more in force that anything witty or pithy. The characters are going to be middle class, and their conversation is going to be flat, dull, and boring. Danny Vaccaro reinforces this impression when he comes to a landing outside a bedroom door and makes his first announcement about the host, who has shot himself, perhaps accidentally, and needs medical attention.

Simon loves characters that need medical attention. Hypochondria is a leitmotif throughout his plays. But Vaccaro’s character, husband to Leonard’s character, comes across as hysterical and nagging, the kind who makes an uproar out of any calamity, a mountain out of any molehill.

That’s the case in “Rumors.” You don’t believe anyone is acting sensibly. Nor do you buy into the panic surrounding the host’s shooting or the absence without note or trace of the other honoree, the host’s wife. Sure, “Rumors” is a farce, but one of the pleasures of a farce is rooting for characters to succeed in their mayhem and to delight in their almost getting caught as plots and stakes escalate into total madness. It’s not as if a vet like Simon didn’t know this in 1988, when “Rumors” premiered (and ran for more than 500 performances), but for all of his ideas and plot twists, such as a party with uncooked food in the kitchen and a scene in which every character is afflicted with some ache, pain, or physical impairment at once — Baker and cast ace this one, Vaccaro as someone struck suddenly deaf by a loud noise being hilarious as a bewildered, motionless centerpiece. —  you still wonder only slightly about the general mystery and know most of the characters will heal easily enough, so nothing keeps you going except waiting for the next joke. “Rumors” is a collection of gags instead of a solid, fluid story.

“Rumors” and its people are just too ordinary and uninvolving for the play’s own good. It’s hard to immerse yourself in a scheme of secrecy and privacy, as Vaccaro’s character asks seven other guests to do, when you think the prevailing strategy is wrong, stupid, and an idiotic mistake (as Haas’s and Bruce Graham’s characters hint). Vaccaro’s character’s concerns have some merit, but they’re expressed in such high-dudgeon and that goofy panicked tone of movie comedies from the ’60s, you want to dismiss them as the maunderings and precautions of an overthinking kook. All of Baker’s cast, except for Twiss and Graham, play their parts as if their lives are in jeopardy. Even farce needs some basis in substance, and “Rumors” has none. It is composed of arguments over strategy and injuries to each of the characters. Yes, Simon will provide a funny line or an arch comeback here and there. Physical comedy bits, such as Haas struggling for minutes to open a stubborn bag of pretzels that Twiss unseals in an effortless second, work. So does the impromptu conga the cast does to pretend the party guests are having too good a time to hear the police at the door. Twiss, with the least to do, gets the most mileage out of the back spasms her TV cooking show host endures. Talk about timing! Twiss release each agonizing scream announcing pain on the offbeat. She never fails to make you empathize with her character while she elicits an earned laugh.

Baker and company keep “Rumors” as lively as it can be. The production is entertaining. Sadly, Simon’s script and the tense matter at hand doesn’t invite you in. All seems so mundane and predicated on overreaction. And, once again, the characters are ciphers who have nothing of import to say and don’t even make a good go at the whispering down the lane suggested by Simon’s title.

You see the humor. Funny things are said and done. But it’s comedy by the numbers. Nothing seems inspired or wildly rollicking. Even the conga that works so well becomes one more instance of an annoying gimmick to take inordinate time to answer any door or telephone. You can tell the level of the comedy by how much you wish the character’s would stop their scrapping and see to the gosh-darn door. (I know the long pauses before reacting to door- or telephone bells is meant to create some suspense and intentional discomfort in the audience, but in this production, they seems irritating and unconscionable.)

Baker’s production keeps you going with individual moments. Twiss’s cries of pain have more going for them than just timing. They are genuine, as opposed to neurotic, twinges that hurt the character who has become an Earth mother and most likeable of the cast.

Jessica Wagner aces her chances for the opposite reasons. Her character is so obviously upset about something, and so disdainful to her husband, the intensity of her feelings makes her funny, especially in one sequence in which Wagner crosses the stage, left to right, in an angry, determined stomp. She is the tart to Twiss’s empathetic cook and a contrast to the ladylike behavior of the other woman. She is also a good foil to Sean Thompson, the best in the male cast, who puts some dimension into his role as an accused and accusing husband in a doomed marriage and who can snap in a heartbeat from being in a catfight with his wife to the distinguished state senatorial candidate it serves him to project.

Eleanor Handley finds the balance between being a friend/guest concerned for her host’s condition and repuation — He’s a deputy mayor of NYC even though he resides in Westchester County. — and the sophistication you would expect from someone with her money and social status to muster. (Most of the others are one-sided and cartoony in their approach to their characters.) Paul Weagraff has a wonderful second-act bit as a police officer who causes a tizzy among the party guests and does a good job steadying the show’s pace.

Sophistication among the assembled guests is what’s missing. Farce takes on more hilarity when someone in a tux or gown falls on the banana peel. Hauteur breaking down instead of instant flummoxed loss of self-control may have more effect, but these characters seem more clumsy and careless than caught unaware or vulnerable. Handley can convey class and control within panic, and Twiss and Graham represent the more tweedy, hamisch, rational rich and successful. Most others go about their business as if they’re taking Comedy 101 and avoid real character development as they run around, nurse their Simon-endowed injuries, and bark their lines. Leonard Haas does wonders with that remarkable monologue though.

Jason Simms did a wonderful job designing a set that looks like a posh suburban home and has the requisite doors needed for farce. Linda B. Stockton chose gowns perfectly for the woman and made sure the men’s formal wear looked posh, as the men in “Rumors” would have insisted upon. John Hoey clever uses pinks and pastels to illuminate and give some ambient color to Simms’s white, white walls and furniture. Grade: Production – B, Play – D.

saint joan -- interiorSAINT JOAN, Quintessence Theatre Group, at the Sedgwick, 7137 Germantown Avenue, in Philadelphia, through Friday, April 2 (in repertory with Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus”) — Leigha Kato, ingenuous, passionate, girlish, enthusiastic, and confidently committed to the saintly voices she hears as George Bernard Shaw’s Joan of Arc, remains the centerpiece of Rebecca Wright’s production of “Saint Joan” even when she’s offstage, and Shaw replaces her optimistic zeal and boundless courage with sets of cynical courtiers, French and British, and churchmen polemically considering Joan’s ability, threat, and fate. Kato’s Joan shows the vigor, belief, and faith that earned her canonization in 1920, nearly five centuries after high Roman Catholic officials obliged French authorities by ordering her burning at the stake for blasphemy and other charges popular during the Inquisition.

Kato’s Joan energizes Wright’s staging. Her overriding presence, and the affection she engenders, give particularly deep context to Shaw’s play about vanities and jealousies among jurisdictions, hunger for power, the poison of politics in everything, and role of wealth in gaining political sway. Shaw is writing about the sophistic danger in having the best argument, rather than the best cause or the best course, be the likely avenue to winning in trial and debate. Joan is an example of someone who was useful and lauded when she was advancing a nation’s desired aims; feared when her success, popularity, and power surpasses that of potentates who regard themselves as the only ones who should have and wield such advantages; disparaged when the people she is fighting for are satisfied with what she has procured for them, and condemned when she fights to continue her campaign to free France of foreign invaders, even to the extent of risking her freedom and life by challenging the mighty and entrenched Holy See on matters mystic and ecclesiastic.

Being just past teen years herself, Kato stirringly embodies the warrior child who knows the way to flush British occupiers from France, leads the battles that restore the French throne to Charles VII, and says consistently she is following the dictates of the Archangel Michael and Saints Catherine and Margaret, who speak to her through the winds. There is a juvenile absolutism to her stances and insistences. There is youthful faith in the rectitude and necessity of her actions. There’s more humility than pride or hubris as Joan discusses her deeds, some pride coming out mostly when she has to argue why her victories should be enough for French generals and the clergy to listen to her and follow her as committedly as she responds to her voices.

By showing no guile and using only native wit to justify naïve logic, Kato makes Joan darling. You love her precociousness and open, innocent approach to serious martial and governmental matters as much as you are taken with her conviction and confidence. This is a lovable yet respectable, respectful, and competent Joan. She practically runs on stage and speaks with adolescent breathlessness as she tells her plans and demands all follow her to their mutual benefit. She shows the confusion of the untutored when faced with political dilemmas that seem irrelevant to the liberating task at hand, to Church doctrine that questions her hearing of divine voices, and to temporal or canonical laws that seem to have nothing to do with her mission, intentions, or actions, let alone the  accolades from her triumphs, accolades that make some soldiers and priests feel jealous and outshined. Kato’s Joan is truly above hierarchical tangles. She is sincerely taken aback by Charles’s ingratitude, the military’s disdain, and the Church’s inability to understand, or refusal to understand, what she has wrought to the glory of all concerned. Kato’s is simply a marvelous interpretation and ebullient exhibition of all Shaw’s Joan of Arc is and can be.

Shaw cleverly uses the plight of Joan to show how completely the powerful and authoritative can control everyone, as well as the insidiousness of codified morality and belief supervised by the few and demanded of the many. Although Joan is exonerated and lauded in the 20th century, Shaw, writing just after the occasion of her sainthood, is aiming his knowing spotlight as much on the Parliaments, Congresses, and international tribunals of his time as on the feudal, tyrannical structure of Joan’s. Joan is doomed for sticking to her story and rendering nothing ameliorating up to Caesar or to the priests. Shaw is showing how shrewdly and with what cynicism and ease such loaded persecutions take place. (Look at the fate after Shaw’s time of Alan Turing or the moves of self-righteous religios, Christian and Muslim, to control their fellow humans today.) Shaw exposes the tactics of the righteous vs. the right, and Quintessence’s “Saint Joan” makes that exposure engaging and entertaining by keeping Shaw’s potentially confusing battery of issues and characters concise and not only easy, but fun, to follow, Kato leading the way with her frank, unsophisticated Joan, others in Wright’s cast (Josh Carpenter and Sean Close in particular), showing the duplicity, trickery, and in some cases, a fair claim to virtue and rectitude of her adversaries. Who is more dangerous, Shaw posits, the one who takes a stand for popular or political purposes, or the true believer who is certain his or her morality is unassailable and superior to yours to the extent he or she can legislate to dictate yours?

Shaw knows they’re equal villains, a two-headed monster cut from the same cloth, but that villains have their charm. Some of Joan’s detractors speak with venom and put forward the attitude only they know the proper way of the world, and some have the charm and silver-tongued skill of a diplomat while simply stating a case he or she intends to have prevail. Wright’s cast is able to show and differentiate between both types, so you watch “Saint Joan” with interest, attending to the various arguments, seeing how matters are stacked against Joan, even by those claiming to help her, and marveling at the pearly adroitness of the prosecutors motivated only be reached the desired outcome decided upon at the outset..

Kato’s ingenuousness leads the way, but the guile displayed by Josh Carpenter, Alan Brincks, Sean Close, and Andrew Betz give as much delight as you see the French court begin to take Joan for granted and want her dismissed once she, following her voices, has secured for them their positions and nobility in a country rid of the British occupiers. French soil would never again come under the domination of the British, but its leaders prefer to be complacent rather than giving gratitude to or taking further orders from Joan. To Charles and others, her work to date has been sufficient, and there’s no reason to do more or follow her into further breaches. John Basilius and Anita Holland play the more absolute characters. Aaron Kirkpatrick makes a clever comic case for the role of the executioner. Wright’s troupe makes Shaw’s points a pleasure to follow.

Josh Carpenter particularly distinguishes himself as the British noble who is tired of Joan’s victories and wants her captured and subjected to the revenge of British justice. As the Earl of Warwick, Carpenter is urbane and clear in his intent. His charm and nonchalant talk of destroying Joan is matter-of-fact, bred into this noble who is used to power and thinks of Joan strategically and politically and not as young woman or even as a fellow human. Carpenter’s Gilles de Rais (Bluebeard) is more curious. In this part, the actor affects a strange covered, serpent-toned voice, much like the voice he used as the mercenary villain of Machiavelli’s “The Mandrake” earlier this season. As Warwick, Carpenter reverts to being perfectly Shakespearean and frighteningly cool and indomitable.

Quintessence’s secret weapon, Alan Brincks, a fine actor who seems to surface only on this Germantown stage, does a masterful job as the priest who takes Joan to her first meeting with the Dauphin and as a persuasively argumentative member of the French court. Brincks always brings a strong note of reality to his roles, even when speaking in heightened language, and his work in “Saint Joan” is up to his usual high standards and discipline.

Always witty Andrew Betz gives the Dauphin erect carriage and signs of breeding while yet cowering before the nobles surrounding and commanding him, not to mention Joan, whom he doesn’t want to face and from whom he fears the most irresistible bullying. The haughtier sides of Charles’s personality come to the fore when he has stature of a king and can be dismissive of Joan for all her work in securing his throne. The contrast is marked, and Betz, an actor who provides additional texture via a myriad of detail he expresses in his eyes, face, and posture, makes it interesting and entertaining.

Sean Close is excellent as Baudricourt, the soldier Joan’s voices advise her to seek and the one she  asks to fights by her side, and as the anxious, stubborn Englishman, de Stogumber, who wants Joan dead, then recants and fears for his soul once he sees Joan being consumed on the stake. This is Close’s best performance to date. In both 1812’s “This is the Week That Is” and Quintessence productions, he shows great growth in going from a facile comedian, relying at times on a Paul Lynde delivery for effect, to a versatile actor who can convey many personalities and moods,

Tom Carman impresses as a young prelate who wants Joan to recant or face the ultimate justice. John Basiulus conveys the piety of the Inquisitor, wanting to proves Joan’s guilt but making sure she confesses it so he can imprison her for life instead of having her killed. Basiulus is wonderful at showing a man with a touch of benevolence and a penchant for doing things as prescribed in manuals, etc. but whose most generous side is not generous, forgiving, or human enough. Basiulus’s Inquisitor is the perfect servant of government or Church. He wants to enforce Church will, but he’d rather secure a confession and put any onus on the accused rather than have to prove guilt and pronounce dire pre-determined sentences. He wants to humiliate and punish but he hopes he can spare defendants before him death so he can send them to a long life of misery as penance. Anita Holland is especially good when showing horror at Joan’s recantation of her confession. Watching her nose go up and her face spread with disdain captured the situation in three efficient gestures. Gregory Isaac is admirably sincere as the one benevolent Church official who wants earnestly to save Joan but has to be resigned to listening to her condemn herself with every word and thought she spouts.

Alexander Burns’s set is utilitarian but stylish, a slanting runway which remains open and uncluttered, leaving the middle free for focused action while turning the sides to galleries in which groups of Joan’s adversaries can be assembled. Nikki Delhomme’s colorful costumes, made it seems from swatches of odd material patched together are creative and hideous. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s lighting both creates a sense of place and time of day and the grandeur  of miracles and sainthood. Grade: B+





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