DR. BARTOLO’S UMBRELLA and OTHER TALES

By Christopher Cameron

Seraphim Editions

264 pages, $19.95

Christopher Cameron’s memoir of his 12-year professional career as concert and opera singer begins with strange modesty. The son of a physician father and a mother who was a “decent pianist,” he claims to have had “an uneventful, undramatic, healthy relationship” with his parents and four siblings. He describes himself as “a miserable scholar,” “a model of recalcitrance when it came to high school discipline,” and “a non-starter” in athletics. As if this confession of inadequacy were insufficient, Cameron goes on to admit that “there was no single thread of expertise or musical preference that wove itself through [his] career as a singer,” though he made all his early solo appearances on the concert stage. He remains modest about his success in vocal competitions (he beat out Ben Heppner once in a Mozart Singing Competition), and he concludes that he failed in career-management. Cameron undermines the very title of his memoir when he confesses that he was not suited physically, dramatically, or temperamentally to the role of Dr. Bartolo, “one of the most famous of buffo bass opera characters,” and which he never managed to perform “with much success at all,” as many times as he sang it.

Given such devastating candour, why did he opt to write this book? Because of music and his love for it. In his immaturity and adolescent confusion, music was his “companion and confessor.” And when he developed in Grade 9 an infatuation for a girl cast, it seemed only fitting that she played percussion with him in the school band. He acted and sang in Oklahoma! a little later, sounding ridiculous in his “high-pitched countrified Pappy Yokum type of voice” but loving the comic lines as Andrew Carnes. Hired as a supernumerary for an upcoming Canadian Opera Company season, he played a captive Ethiopian in Aida, was paid a dollar per rehearsal, and two dollars a show, for which he wore black body paint and a fuzzy wig. When not on stage, he would stand in the wings or sit in the house during rehearsals to watch and listen. Fascinated by chorus master, Lloyd Bradshaw, who was a magician “seeming to draw the music out of the singers as if by sorcery,” he eagerly accepted Bradshaw’s invitation to sing in the youth choir of St. George’s United Church, and subsequently becoming the baritone lead in The Gondoliers, and giving various choral performances in another church and then being taped by the CBC at Christmas.

His book covers some of his personal life (romance, marriage, fatherhood) and moves over his early years in the profession, marking his audition for the Royal Conservatory of Music, the growth of his voice, reputation, and musical knowledge. It also details his experience with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Mendelssohn Choir (conducted by Elmer Iseler), his audition in 1976 for the Opera School, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, and the culture-shock he suffered when he moved from choral music to opera. Famous names begin to collect in his narrative (Ben Heppner, Teresa Stratas, Ermanno Mauro, Gino Quilico, Mark DuBois, Mark Pedrotti, Caralyn Tomlin, Katherine Terrell, etc) but Cameron fails to share revealing anecdotes about these singers, opting, instead, for digressions on Verdi, vocal categories, technical information on vibrato and resonators, effects of the body or physiology on voice, stage management, costumes and footwear, or the requisites for being an opera director. While interesting and even important in their own right, these digressions are not made an organic part of his narrative but seem to serve as space-fillers that belong more properly in a manual or reference book. The impression of a guide or self-help book is reinforced when he categorizes the factors that led him to become a singer. There are candid moments when he does dare to pass less than complimentary comments on a celebrity or two or on the O’Keefe Centre (“the quagmire of acoustic quicksand”), and there is undeniably good memoir-writing in the chapter “Singing In My Chains,” but in sum, his book is too modest and too tepid by far.

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STUDIO OFFERINGS AT STRATFORD

THE KOMAGATA MARU INCIDENT
by Sharon Pollock.
Directed by Keira Loughran.
At the Studio Theatre. Till September 24, 2017

THE BREATHING HOLE
by Colleen Murphy.
Directed by Reneltta Arluk.
At the Studio Theatre. Till September 22, 2017

Kiran Ahluwalia as Woman  in “The Komagata Maru Incident” (photo: Lynda Churilla)

Sharon Pollock’s The Komagata Maru Incident is based on an egregious racial incident in 1914, when a Japanese freighter carrying 376 Sikh immigrants from India was not allowed to dock in Vancouver by government officials because they came from the Third World and were not of acceptable colour, religion, language, and way of life. After a seven-week standoff, the ship returned to India, leaving behind only 20 passengers who proved that they had former residence in Canada. Pollock’s nobly intentioned original was set (inexplicably and sensationally) in a brothel, with an incongruous circus atmosphere created by a Master of Ceremonies dressed as ring-master. The playwright used documentary facts but sought to create a theatrical impression, using dramatic license and compressing time and place.

Director Keira Loughran has tried to make something new of the play, but has lost her way both in history and in theatre. The background story of Gurdit Singh Sarhali, the Sikh who devised a way of testing Britain and Canada’s immigration policy, is left shadowy, and by incorporating Chinese and First Nation characters in a bid to enlarge the issue of Canadian racism, Loughran has made the play diffuse and fuzzy in focus. Audiences are somewhat compensated by a free brochure that fills in historical details, but Pollock’s play (that certainly has historical significance) and Loughran’s treatment create problems. Quelemia Sparrow is an attractive lady who is beautiful both in her indigenous garb (at the outset) and in her circus jacket, top-hat, and boots, but her movement and dance choreography is rather insipid and her vocal performance low energy. Instead, it is left to Jasmine Chen and Diana Tso (as two Chinese ladies of unsavoury suggestion), Tyrone Savage (as Georg, the German-born ally of Immigration Inspector William Hopkinson), and Hopkinson himself (Omar Alex Khan) to provide dramatic and comic sparks, though the most enchanting performance is that of Kiran Ahluwalia as the unnamed Woman who is the only visible East Indian passenger. Pollock has admitted to not having represented any male Sikhs because of her lack of knowledge or direct experience with one at the time of the play’s creation.

Ahluwalia is a beautiful singer with dulcet tones that modulate to fine melancholy, and her economy of gesture have real allure, but she is forced to narrate what the playwright has neglected to dramatize. Moreover, the production seems to be unaware of its own self-sabotage. By having a First Nations woman serve as Emcee, the production turns one historical victim into an ally of the racists. And why is the English translation of the Sikh woman’s songs made to sound like pidgin English? Presumably the Sikh poets and balladeers knew how to form complete sentences in their own language, and this English translation is reprehensibly condescending, patronizing, and false. Moreover, did no one attempt to correct the misimpression that Sikhs are Hindus—a fallacy that is voiced in the script?

Where The Komagata Maru Incident loses dramatic impact and focus because of its flawed attempt to heighten cultural resonance of absent characters, Colleen Murphy’s The Breathing Hole manages to keep its course and gain power despite spanning centuries and having a puppet-polar bear as its main character. Angu’juaq is first seen as a mewling, abandoned cub saved from death by an old Inuit woman, Hummituq (Jani Lauzon), herself starving and abandoned by her family, but a visionary who looks into the black water of the breathing hole to see into the future, predicting eventually the arrival of the Erebus and Franklin’s expedition and a new concept of time. When first discovered, the bear is a clever hand puppet that is utterly charming, though restricted in its movements. However, as it grows into an adult (masterfully created with wood and cloth by an Inuit team, and controlled by Bruce Hunter), it rivals anything seen years earlier in War Horse. As it hunts seals at a breathing hole, ruthlessly hooking its powerful jaws onto its victim and raising it out of the water, it seems massively dangerous, and yet it has vulnerability, even delicacy, as it is subject to human whims and foibles. Indeed, just as a mask can often overtake an actor, this puppet appears to become almost human in its “feelings,” and because the main thrust of the play is a tragic history of human greed, wastefulness, and ruin, the figure and role of this bear is enlarged to symbolic proportions.

The play spans a vast stretch of Arctic history, beginning with a sort of exotically romanticized primitivism in 1534 as the old woman, in contrast to the others in her small community who feel full and satisfied from their hunt, howls with unhappiness. No wonder she takes ardently to the cub, caring for it as one of her own children. Later, the actress appears inside a second (adult) bear, Angu’juaq’s mate, and as the centuries pass, carrying us into the fatal end of the Franklin expedition of 1847, the didactic thrust of the play grows stronger. This section has earned critical disapproval in some quarters because of its highly charged satire aimed at the British explorers and scientists who find themselves ravaged by nature and left to die from starvation and cold. But this section is filled with interesting character sketches by the likes of Randy Hughson, amusingly eccentric yet dignified in his own right; Thomas Mitchell Barnet, Jamie Mac, and Victor Ertmanis as various crew members; and Juan Chioran as an interpreter who eventually goes mad.

The final section (set in future decades of the 21st century) takes us into the whole issue of environmental destruction by Western capitalists, but the playwright eschews being laboriously didactic by comedy of manners and a satire of technologies. Several of the actors who played natives in the initial sequences turn into despicably careless, heartless “whites,” living it up on luxurious Northwest Passage cruise-liners that litter the ocean with their garbage and pollute the world with their rampant consumerism. This is where Angu’juaq’s story reaches its tragic climax, and the final scene with the bear gasping helplessly as it drowns in an oil-slick ocean crystallizes the conflict between cultures, and that between human brutality and nature’s integrity.

Angu’juaq (Bruce Hunter) and Huumituq (Jani Lauzon) in “The Breathing Hole” (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

The Breathing Hole has a beautiful soul that transcends its intrinsic flaws—such as the urge to romanticize and sentimentalize the indigenous, or the undeniable necessity of suspending our disbelief at the bear’s existence in a huge time span. It has been given an utterly appealing non-naturalistic scenic design (Daniela Masellis), excellent costumes (Joanna Yu), extraordinary puppets, lighting of ineffable Borealis effect (Itai Erdal), and signature sound composition (Carmen Braden). The interplay between Inuit actors and some of Stratford’s best company members (under the direction of Reneltta Arluk, who has had extensive experience with Indigenous communities across Canada) is heartening and moving. This is a landmark collaboration between the Stratford Festival and Inuit artists that should become a continuing relationship, for in this our 150th year as a nation, it is time for our Inuit artists to tell their own stories in their own voices.

AN OCTOROON

By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Peter Hinton
At the Royal George Theatre. Till October 14, 2017

(L-R): Ryan Cunningham and Andre Sills (photo: David Cooper)

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon, that debuted in New York’s Soho Rep in 2014, is a play-within-a-play, or, perhaps, three plays in one because in addition to being a reaction to Dion Boucicault’s classic melodrama, The Octoroon (note the subtle difference in titles), that debuted in 1859, it incorporates some of that play’s material after a fulsome prologue in which a black actor (Andre Sills), wearing nothing but briefs and representing Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, pours out his anger and pain in a theatre dressing-room in a sort of self-described therapy. BJJ resents being unable to revive Boucicault’s play without resorting to political correctness. As he slathers his face with white makeup, he plays Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz on a ghetto-blaster, multiplying the stereotypes as they play one against the other. Sills performs his monologue with admirable force before he is attended by his “native” dresser (Ryan Cunningham, who is really a First Nations actor) wearing a black T-shirt with the phrase “Merciless Indian Savages” emblazoned on it. BJJ is joined by a drunk stage Boucicault (Patrick McManus) who resents having been forgotten by the theatre world. McManus sounds and acts convincingly Anglo-Irish and drunk.

Eventually, BJJ stages his version of the Boucicault melodrama, while playing a dual role: George Peyton (newly arrived from Europe with the benevolent intention of saving his dead uncle’s Terrebonne Plantation in Louisiana from financial ruin) and M’Closkey (the dastardly racist and sadistic overseer who devises a plot to take over everything, including the slaves, among whom is beautiful Zoe (Vanessa Sears), the octoroon of the title). Among the other slaves represented in the DB version are Dido (Lisa Berry) and Minnie (Kiera Sangster), who make a very entertaining double-act in a rap song. Boucicault’s original play was all about breaking taboos, and BJJ’s play-within-a-play attempts a similar provocation, while following the general contours of DB. Regarding the interracial theme, Zoe falls in love with George, who is pursued by Dora (Diana Donnelly, who is brilliantly funny in her affectations), and who even contemplates marrying wealthy, lusty Dora in order to save the plantation and slaves.

The significant twist to affairs is the racial coding. BJJ plays both hero and villain in white face, while DB (McManus) is in red face as he portrays Wahnotee, a noble, alcoholic “injun” (a double stereotype!) and the real Indigenous actor adopts black face as he plays an ingratiating black youth and an old, shuffling slave-as-household-servant. Sills performs quick changes in the dual roles, helped by facial makeup and costuming that combines white and black like two halves of an uneasy whole. In one quick bravura episode, he even gets to fight with himself.

Boucicault’s original play is truncated in BJJ’s presentation. Indeed, its plot is dramatically foreshortened, as if, it seems, to allow director Peter Hinton to exercise flights of his own imagination, some of which are brilliant but others of which are laboured or undeveloped or even unnecessary. The final act, for instance, is staged brilliantly, as Gillian Gallow’s wooden set is deconstructed or collapsed, although BJJ does not stage either the murder or the trial dramatized by DB. On the negative side, although Hinton introduces a human-scale Brer Rabbit on the fringes of action, he never really develops that creature’s significance as a trickster.

Ultimately, then, an audience’s response to An Octoroon will depend on how well it deals with the disparate tensions in this production: the playwright’s contact with and departure from Boucicault’s original; the friction between classic melodrama and post-modern didacticism; the playing of racial stereotypes one against the other; and Hinton’s embellishments that are not necessarily coherent or clear, as well as Jacobs-Jenkins’s tendency to overwrite. What is undeniable, however, is the real BJJ’s power that flows from a heart that demands our confrontation with incredibly rancid, outrageous black and white history in America. Given current events and realities in the abominable Trump regime, there is urgency about the matter.

WILDE TALES

By Oscar Wilde, adapted by Kate Hennig.
Directed by Christine Brubaker.
At the Court House Theatre. Till October 7, 2017

Marion Day, Sanjay Talwar and Kelly Wong in “The Selfish Giant” 

Kate Hennig’s loving adaptation of four Oscar Wilde tales is set in an elegant garden of the imagination, with storybook décor and costumes by Jennifer Goodman, lighting by Siobhan Sleath, and music and sound by John Gzowski. Six performers exercise their acting skills, aided at times by a group of kids drawn from the audience, and who hold flowers to be added to the garden. The show is a charming, benevolent, and wise collection of parables that offer uplifting instruction about such things as kindness, beauty, and love while carrying us into situations where some of the worst aspects of human nature are on display. The neglected statue of the Happy Prince understands that “there is no Mystery so great as Misery,” and it is a group of children who recognize his suffering. In “The Nightingale and the Rose,” a little bird helps a student in pain over unrequited love by impaling itself on a thorn bush to give birth to a rose that the lovelorn youth can offer to his beloved. And in “The Selfish Giant,” a small, tearful, frustrated boy brings about a spiritual conversion of the mean creature. Hennig incorporates quotations and epigrams from other writing by Wilde to bolster both pain and joy, but the children’s tales hardly need such additional instruction, though the sentences are beautifully shaped.

Hennig and director Christine Brubaker know that nuggets of moral insight need not be heavy or unpalatable. Their 55-minute show uses puppetry in offering a garden of delightful fun, with the generous support of a worthy cast. Sanjay Talwar’s hilariously self-aggrandizing, chronically garrulous Remarkable Rocket (a pre-Trumpian buffoon of brazen egotism) becomes the common thread joining one tale to another, but all the other performers also leave a strong impression. While Marion Day doesn’t really have the crazy, rapid spin for her Catherine Wheel in the first story, her White Duck (mother to three toy ducklings) is charmingly maternal later, and her Happy Prince (in royal male regalia) is a triumph theatrically and morally. Jonathan Tan gets good fun out of Frog, and Kelly Wong finds saving goodness in the Selfish Giant. P.J. Prudat and Emily Lukasik complement them admirably.

DRACULA

By Bram Stoker
Adapted for the stage by Liz Lochhead
Directed by Eda Holmes
At the Festival Theatre. Till October 14, 2017

Cherissa Richards (Lucy) and Allan Louis (Dracula) (photo: David Cooper)

Scots poet-playwright Liz Lochhead has transformed Bram Stoker’s classic tale of vampirism into a feminist yarn layered with themes of gender and abnormal sexuality. Director Eda Holmes has carried the transformation a step farther by presenting (through actor Allan Louis) a mythic creature who seduces by appealing to his women victims’ secret needs. Louis’s Count is neither ham nor ham-fisted. He is a handsome creature of darkness (literally because of his skin colour) who lives alone with his memories and wit. And he gleams even in darkness with palpable sexual allure, especially when he is hovering behind screens or curtains before revealing himself. His Lucy (Cherissa Richards) is a rebel against her an uptight chauvinistic society. She seems to invoke lesbianism and vampirism when she tells her virginal sister Mina: “You’re good enough to eat!” Of course, the irony is that Lucy is the one who becomes Dracula’s carnal feast. The actress portrays sexual delirium with intense fervour, and Lucy’s coupling with the vampire leaves nothing to the imagination.

Holmes amplifies the playwright’s theme of New Women by exploiting some of the sexual warps of the tale. Florrie (Natasha Mumba) discharges sexual double-entendres and discusses sex openly with Lucy, who comes to luxuriate in the vampire’s eroticism. Jonathan Harker (Ben Sanders) is luridly tempted by Dracula’s brides. This is evidently not a story that sanctifies marriage or chastity. It is also not a story that holds to a heterosexual ethos. While coaxing nervous Jonathan Harker (Ben Sanders) to stay with him, Dracula offers to play his chambermaid—an enticing sexual gambit. Homoeroticism raises its own spectre when the predatory Count hovers over the half-naked form of Harker on a bed, but director and actors cut short the suggestiveness.

Michael Gianfrancesco’s design incorporates screens, curtains, and cages to build a context for demonic romanticism as well as madness. However, the Gothic articulation falls a little short at times, and Holmes overuses the curtains. Nice to have the fabric used as a sort of filmic wipe, but sometimes their movement is merely distracting when a deeper suspense could be created from chilling stillness. Cameron Davis’s projections give us storm and stress in the forms of boiling sea waves, super-enlarged maggots, wolf eyes, and blood drops, while Alan Brodie’s lighting and John Gzowski’s music and sound design enhance the sense of forces eerily suppressed or eruptive.

There are some standout performances in the ensemble by Moya O’Connell and Chick Reid as amusingly cynical nurse cockney nurses, Steven Sutcliffe as Van Helsing, and Graeme Somerville as the insane, fly-munching Renfield. And Marla McLean is a deliciously virginal Mina. There is also sturdy support from Martin Happer as a helplessly baffled Dr. Seward. But the fundamental problem is the adaptation itself because it resorts to having Van Helsing serve as narrator of his own actions and keeps Dracula off the stage for much too long, denying us the opportunity to experience Allan Louis at full bite.

MIDDLETOWN

By Will Eno.
Directed by Meg Roe.
At the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre.
Till September 10, 2017

Gray Powell (John Dodge) and Moya O’Connell (Mary Swanson) (photo: David Cooper)

Directed by Meg Roe, designed with imaginative economy by Camellia Koo (set), Kevin Lamotte (lighting), and Alessandro Juliani (music and sound), and performed by an excellent cast, Will Eno’s Middletown is thought-provoking and deeply moving. What is it about? Pain, love, and death. Loneliness and joy. Violence and gentleness. Missed connections. The banal and the surreal. The whole damned business, dreaminess, and melancholy of life. Eno probably takes his inspiration from Thornton Wilder’s benign Our Town, and there are several clear similarities between the two plays. Both tales have slices of real life, and both have a prologue: Wilder’s stage-manager is a casual host; Eno’s Public Speaker (different actors play him differently on different nights) is more quizzical, assertive, fundamentally compassionate yet provocative. “Bloated on life, gorged on words,” he presents both real and dream life, populated by emotionally or spiritually injured people. Both plays use mime, symbolic settings, and abstracted characters, but this is probably where the similarities end.

Wilder’s classic shows a palpable human comedy, tracing generations, cutting across childhood, youth, maturity, and old age in a clearly demarcated Grover’s Corner, near New Hampshire. Eno’s contemporary anatomy is of a generalized community rather than a specific geography. Indeed, this point is established in the prologue, where members of the cast draw a map on the gleaming floor, mottled with small stars. Wilder’s classic begins at the beginning of a typical day and carries us into a graveyard and an after-life, whereas Eno starts in the middle of something that, because it knows no ending, cannot establish where that middle is. Middletown is generally quiet, pedestrian, and with a vague history. It may well be the middle earth between outer space (there is a hauntingly beautiful episode of an astronaut floating all alone in the heavens) and the grave.

Eno’s characters are prone to doing weird things—not in any spectacular way but, perhaps, as a result of human nature’s urge to figure things out. His presentational mode is anti-naturalistic, with characters sometimes breaking through the imaginary fourth wall to address the audience. Props (such as windows, stools, a bench, kitchen sink, hospital beds, etc) are brought on and carried off by the actors, who sometimes sit in the audience as if eavesdropping on the action. Indeed, the text is purposefully self-reflexive, meditative, and interrogative—the better to mirror the characters’ curiosities. This makes for a contextual field rather than a clear through-line, but this is part of the rich texture. And director Meg Roe serves up a feast for the eye and ear, with some stunning visual surprises (the astronaut sequence, for example, wonderfully lit as if in an eternal galaxy) and enticing surrealism (the Mechanic serving as a parody angel—more of doom than salvation, though his intended audience of children might not know the difference).

Eno’s cross-section of characters includes a cop (Benedict Campbell), his landscaper brother-in-law (Peter Millard), a librarian (Tara Rosling), tour guide (Sara Topham), tourists (Millard and Claire Jullien), a male and female doctor (Karl Ang and Fiona Byrne), radio hosts (Ang and Natasha Mumba), janitor (Kristopher Bowman), mechanic (Jeff Meadows), a woman on a date (Jullien), and a man (John Dodge) and woman (Mary Swanson) who accidentally meet and have accidental destinies. The central pair, John (Gray Powell) and Mary (Moya O’Connell), have emblematic surnames: his portending a man drifting through life but intent on finding existential gravity beyond his psychological fear; and hers signifying an essential gracefulness of bearing, manner, and feeling. Both are essentially lonely beings. Mary, newly arrived and pregnant, has a husband forever absent from significant moments in her life, is left to her own lonely ache for companionship and love, while John, subject to anxiety attacks, makes desperate attempts to distance himself from emotional pain and devastation. The pair makes gentle, loving contact, but no romance blossoms to fruition. But where John is ultimately doomed, Mary is the maternal source of new life.

The cast is beyond reproach, with each player bringing each role (sometimes two or more in each case) to vivid life with sharply observed character traits. Comedy comes to the fore in many instances, but ultimately the play catches us by surprise, making us quiver with sharp recognition of our all too human foibles and frailties. And it is because the cast has Gray Powell as its quaking eccentric, its flawed anti-hero, its emotional desperado and because it has beautifully simple, unaffected Moya O’Connell as its lonely romantic, with all this remarkable actress’s humanist antennae activated, that the play achieves rare heights of soul-shaking truth without ever leaving earth. When Powell’s John, on his clinically morbid deathbed, begs O’Connell’s Mary to hug him, and she responds with direct tender empathy and sensitivity, be prepared to feel a lump in the throat, a catch in the heart. This is not just good acting; it is the best acting because all artificial filters are dropped, and nothing but naked truth is allowed to radiate from the very core of each character.

Like Eda Holmes’s exceptionally brilliant version last season of Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, Meg Roe’s radiant production of Middletown deserves not only a main stage revival but a well-rendered film rendering. Why are we so carelessly casual about our national theatrical treasures?

 

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG

By Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
Directed by Mark Bell
At the Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th Street, New York. Till September 3, 2017

Though it has now had a theatre life of over 5 years, having begun as a 17-minute improvisation by three English friends, The Play That Goes Wrong capitalizes on impromptu or seemingly impromptu happenings. The pre-show confusion and accidents look spontaneous, though they have been well thought out in advance, even as the supposed stage manager Annie (Nancy Zamit) of the highly (or lowly) amateur Cornely University Drama Society recruits an unsuspecting audience member into serving as a butt for physical farce, involving a recalcitrant ledge over a faux-fireplace, a hammer whose head falls off at an inopportune moment, a door that won’t stay shut, et cetera. The set-up or warm-up is, of course, prologue to a play-within-a-play—The Murder at Haversham Manor, a serious-minded British murder-mystery that devolves into pure farce—a sort of Agatha Christie spoof gone topsy-turvy or haywire. But there’s more to the prologue, for Chris Bean (Director, Designer, Costume Designer, Prop Maker, Dramaturge, Voice Coach, etc. etc. of the afore-mentioned Drama Society, as well as playing Inspector Carter) comes on to explain with awkward modesty about the modesty of the group’s artistic limits. Lacking enough able-bodied actors, instead of Cats or The Three Sisters, it could offer only Cat or The Two Sisters. Henry Shields who plays him, does so with splendidly timed and phrased studied effect, quite at odds with what follows. And what follows is sheer madness, that, though caviar to a general audience unaccustomed to real farce, will be sheer torture in general to those well versed in theatre. Well, not quite sheer, because there are, admittedly, choice moments of inspired lunacy, and the entire cast is expert in their calculated antics.

Good thing too because the script is incredibly goofy, groan-worthy, and hardly ever on the same plane as Noises Off or, even, Jitters (a Canadian theatre farce). Of course, there is the expected collection of English eccentrics, typical of the genre, tweaked to a hysterical state of aggressive comic exaggeration: a male corpse named Charles (Greg Tannahill) that simply can’t stay still while around him is falling apart; a sexy, pulchritudinous fiancée (Charlie Russell) given to ridiculously affected vamp poses; her tweedy, husky brother (Henry Lewis), and best friend of deceased Charles; an old retainer (Jonathan Sayer) who is given to congenital mispronunciation (“fuck-aide” for “façade”); a handsomely duplicitous young man (Dave Hearn) so obviously delighted by any applause he receives for his amateur enthusiasms that he habitually steps out of character for the spontaneous ovations; and an imaginary vicious dog on a metal leash, straining threateningly. But you get the point, by now, though it is important to add that the jokes are given extra theatrical life by their evident sources in theatre itself, for there are lighting and sound cues that frequently go awry because their designer (Rob Falconer) allows himself to be entranced and distracted by the music of Duran Duran; the butler has his cues and lines inscribed on his palms and wrists; the actors sometimes find themselves (expertly) repeating dialogue out of sync and in desperate circles; and the set (Nigel Hook’s marvellously concocted tacky simulacrum of a creepy English manor drawing-room) becomes a star player all its own as it performs hair-raising stunts almost beyond belief.

(L-R: Jonathan Sayer, Greg Tannahill, Henry Lewis, Dave Hearn, and Charlie Russell) (photo: Jeremy Daniel)

The set was the only thing to earn a Tony nomination and award for this show, so The Play That Goes Wrong can rightly boast that it was the only Broadway show to have a 100% success rate at the Tony’s. Moreover, like many a Broadway mega-musical, it can now boast of audiences hilariously singing the set.