Sunday, December 4, 2016

Hay Fever—Portland Actors Conservatory—SW Portland

“Much Ado About Nothing”

This classic comedy by Noel Coward is directed by Brenda Hubbard.  It is playing at their space, 1436 SE Montgomery St. (parking is a challenge in this area, so plan your time accordingly), through December 18th.  For more information on this production, their season and/or classes, go to their site at www.pac.edu or call 503-274-1717.

Yes, my above title is actually from another classic comedy writer, Mr. S., but the phrase does seem to sum up the theme of this play.  It was written a few decades ago when life seemed free and easy (for some) and, as the song goes, “…the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, ain’t we got fun?”  For the elite, the privileged, the titled, the few, it must have been a fun time to go punting (boating with a pole), indulging in the Arts, traveling and spending money like it was going out of style.  It was also a time of falling in and out of “love,” gossiping, dressing up frequently, playing word games and dishing your friends and neighbors whenever possible.  And such is the life of the Bliss family.

There is the fastidious, Papa Bliss, David (Jacob Beaver), a writer of novels (of no consequence); his wife, the elegant Mama Bliss, Judith (Tyharra Cozier), a stage actress; the spoiled, fickled daughter, Sorel (Christa Helms); and the equally spoiled son, Simon (Aries Annitya), an artist (of no consequence).  They, with their mouthy maid, Clara (Caren Graham), make up the Bliss household.

But, not content to let things…continue to idle, they have invited some virtual strangers to their house for the weekend.  David has invited the introverted, Jackie (Melissa Buchta), someone he barely knows.  Clara has extended an invitation to an eager, “younger” man, Sandy (Bjorn Anderson), whom she met casually in a shop.  Sorel’s newest interest is the world traveler, Richard Greatham, an “older,” experienced gentleman, who Sorel feels she can “learn” from.  And Simon has a new “friend,” in the guise of the snobbish, Myra (Monica Fleetwood), a wit not to be trifled with.  But if all the visitors assumed that, there would be no play, of course.

And so, when everybody is through staking out their territory, the real game begins…musical chairs.  Of course, the only reason for the visitations is to see if you can get your partners goat, as it were.  In order to put a person in their place, of course, you have to give them some competition.  And so the comedy of manners (or lack of) continues.  They each pair off with different mates to get a rise out of another, with only the visitors being taken by surprise, as it all seems to be one great game.  Things are eventually resolved, at least for the family, and the visitors may have become sadder but wiser (or not).  Any resemble to reality is purely coincidental.  Or, as Queen Eleanor might conclude, “what family doesn’t have its ups and downs.”  

This is a fun, fluff piece as far as the story goes but its strength lies in the genius of Coward’s witty words and wry repartee between his characters.  The tale also probably does reflect Coward’s own “jet set” of friends at the time and so there is a definite self-indulgence on his part, as he also often played one of the characters himself and his dear friend, actress, Gertrude Lawrence, opposite him (see the film “Star” for more background information on them).  My own personal favorite of his was the drama, “Brief Encounter,” which is rarely done (a good film of this is the low-budget, 50’s movie, with Trevor Howard).

Any director at the helm of this piece (or any Coward piece) has to be aware of the intricate timing of the dialogue for the comedy to work.  Have, no fear, Hubbard is in charge and has things well in hand.  She knows exactly what she’s doing and has a cast to match her (and, I believe, Coward’s) vision.  And she has a good artistic team behind the scenes with Max Ward as the set designer and, especially, Jessica Bobillot, as the costume designer (for this and many of their shows) and has outdone herself with this one!

(A side note to this:  Some years ago Hubbard was going to direct this show as part of the SRO program for Portland Civic Theatre.  She had cast me as Richard Greatham.  Shortly after that we were informed that this theatre, which had been around for many years, was closing its doors for good.  Opportunity missed but the beat continued, as it has come full circle for her and I veered into writing.  But, curiously, I did direct the last show to grace their stage, through their school, “Anne of Green Gables.”)

The cast all fit their roles perfectly and, being young performers, have certainly matched or surpassed other casts of Coward’s material.  This type of play would not be easy for any theatre to do but they have risen to the challenge.  If you can do this well, and they do, then you have just accomplished a giant step toward your goal of becoming a professional actor.  Bravo to all!

I recommend this play.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.