A Comedy of Tenors, by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Christine Decker. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Max Arnaud, Peter Langstaff, Ethan Botwick, Yvonne Perry, Ana Anderson, Renata Eastlick; photo: Erika Floriani
"Beppo. My father was Beppo. And his father was Beppo."
Peter Langstaff, Yvonne Perry; photo: Erika Floriani
This is a play about Beppo. Who is Beppo? Beppo is a bellhop in a hotel in Paris in 1936, originally from Venice - a former gondoleer - who sings like an opera star named Tito and who looks a lot like Tito, too. And this happens to be a farce, an American farce that is working its way through the Berkshire region this summer, bracketing the summer theater season having opened the summer at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, NY and now closing the summer at Oldcastle in Bennington, Vermont. This is not necessarily the play you want to see this often. However, if you missed it in NY you can catch it in VT.
This is not the funniest farce in existence, but being a farce it needs to be farcical. This first act is more set-up than low comedy involving doors, windows and so on which is where the farce comes in. That's the second act where the laughs are based on split-second timing for entrances, exits, costume changes and personality wavering. It is in the second act where Christine Decker's version goes awry on the Oldcastle stage. Chatting with her revealed just where she went wrong as a director. She prides herself on her improvisational experience, which she should, and she is happy with all the improv participation from her excellent cast. Still, she lost sight of the director's responsibility in a farce and that is controlling the timing and maintaining the tempo. Those are the ingredients that let a farce be funny, funnier, funniest. And that's where the show loses its savor.
It's a pity, too, because the performances by Peter Langstaff of the angry, hostile and jealous Tito, contrasted with his sweetly compliant, happily musical Beppo, are simply delicious characters. Unfortunately his remorseful Tito is too much like his despondent Beppo and in evening dress his two characters meld into one another when they should be even more different. I imagine this pair of fools must be exhausting to play. Even so, they must never be confused for one another, except in their looks, or half the comedy is lost.
The other half of the lost comedy rests in the performance of Richard Howe as the American millionaire, Saunders, who is producing the concert of three tenors in Paris that provides the framework for the play. When Howe is on top of things he is terrific. But, when he loses his lines, his timing goes awry and his return to the lost line stalls the rhythm of the play and the essential dictate of the farce is interrupted again and again while he tries to get it right. He, and the play, would be much better off if he just moved on and let his mistakes carry his performance into true farce as they became part of his interpretation of the role. At least the show would keep going and not stall over and over again.
Max Arnaud, Richard Howe, Peter Langstaff;photo: Erika Floriani
The three women in the play are delightful.Yvonne Perry as Maria, Tito's wife, is a dish of ice cream slowly melting into a puddle of extreme delight. She starts strong, loses her control, then regains it as a sexual tormentor who wants her special man to adore her. Hers is one of the funniest performances in this production, one I was very grateful to have spread out on the couch in front of me. Her rhythms were impeccable and her accent sheer magic.
As her daughter, Mimi, a would-be actress, Ana Anderson handles the rougher side of comedy beautifully. She falls, naked, from hotel balconies; she dazzles in a French peasant costume for a role in the movie, "Marie Antoinette" starring Norma Shearer; she bitch-slaps her boyfriend in a frenzy of misplaced jealousy becoming her father for a moment; she performs the funniest costume change in recent memory. Her work is wonderful, farcical even, and she is a special delight.
The tempestuous vixen, Racón, a Russian opera soprano, is played with conviction and determination by Renata Eastlick whose gravel-voiced performance turns our concept of soprano into a riot of giggles. Here is a woman who will get her man even if he's not the man she remembers. Eastlick takes advantage of every possibility, altering the show's rhythm once again, but making it pay off royally for her role. She is glorious, however.
The other two tenors in the show are played by Max Arnaud (Max) and Ethan Botwick (Carlo). They both do fine, although Arnaud is hard to buy at times as a tenor for he is never tempestuous or vacuuous. Botwick is handsome enough to be believed as Tito's wife's lover and charming enough to be Tito's daughter's actual lover and eventual victim. Neither man contributes enough within the farcical style so necessary for this play to be funny, but both turn in nice character performances. In a different sort of play they would have been fine.
The true star of this production is the set designed by Carl Sprague. It screams Paris in the '30s. Decker uses its parts well, except for the staircase which she constantly uses as though it had a guard rail across one side of it, moving her actors downstage right to use the steps instead of making more random choices which would have been ultimately funnier. Costumes by Ursula McCarty and Roy Hamlin (also props) were handsomely done and added a nice sense of period to the play.
Not the funniest play by Ken Ludwig, this is still an enjoyable show when done with its farcical elements intact. This time around it almost gets there, but not quite. It needs tightening to be right. As Noel Coward wrote, "but the people are nice."
A Comedy of Tenors plays at Oldcastle Theatre, 331 Main Street, Bennington, VT through September 3. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-447-0564 or go on line at oldcastletheatre.org.