Chandler Williams

Inane Antics of the Idle Rich

Review of Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, Hartford Stage

P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and his unflappable valet Jeeves are beloved figures of British fiction. Brought to BBC television, they inspired a popular show in the 1990s that brought them to life via actors Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. I must confess I had never sought out these incarnations.

Onstage at Hartford Stage in the Goodale Brothers’ adaptation, Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, directed, as it was in London, by Sean Foley, the duo are indelibly enacted by Arnie Burton and Chandler Williams, respectively. And wonderful they are in the roles.

Jeeves (Arnie Burton), Wooster (Chandler Williams) in  Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense , at Hartford Stage, directed by Sean Foley

Jeeves (Arnie Burton), Wooster (Chandler Williams) in Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, at Hartford Stage, directed by Sean Foley

The conceit of the Goodale Brothers’ stage show is that Bertie has decided to make a play of the tangled story of the cow-creamer—as a one-man show. He soon realizes he’s helpless to tell the story much less dramatize it without Jeeves, who abruptly turns up and also enlists fellow servant Seppings (Eddie Korbich) to flesh out the cast. This means that all the subsidiary roles are played by Burton and Korbich, and that the staging of the varied elements of the story—involving several locations—involves a comic and inventive handling of the illusions of theater. And that means much credit is due Alice Power who handles both Scenic Design and Costume Design (indeed, they are inextricably entwined).

A fireplace is wheeled into place to indicate Wooster’s digs, then, when it becomes a room at the club, a different painting is cranked into place. The entrances and exits are as amusing as anything, involving every possible variety, from graceful to rushed to incorrectly costumed. A recurring gag is that the villain of the piece, a fascist named Strode (patterned on Oswald Mosley, Britain’s leader of the blackshirts--here, blackshorts, a boy’s club) increases in height each time he appears. Played by Korbich as a pint-size dictator, Strode becomes more preposterous with each new appearance—until he is both set and costume. Other characters, such as the newt-enthusiast Gussie Fink-Nottle (Burton), are memorably enacted as well, and there’s much fun with coming in and out of a bedroom by door and window, and, my favorite, a scene in an old roadster with Korbich enacting a man observed in passing. The gags are nonstop.

Wooster (Chandler Williams), Jeeves (Arnie Burton)

Wooster (Chandler Williams), Jeeves (Arnie Burton)

Unfortunately, there is also plot aplenty as the play combines elements from two separate tales in The Code of the Woosters, the one involving a cow-creamer, which Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia (Korbich) wants Bertie to “sneer at” to bring down the price, that then falls into the hands of Sir Watkyn Bassett (Burton), a rival collector, and must be pinched, and the other involving a dinner party and Fink-Nottle’s book of notes on Strode and Watkyn-Bassett. The plotting, ingenious as it may be, would seem much ado about little were it not for the diverting techniques of impromptu staging at which the cast is amazingly and breathlessly adroit. If you do want to settle in to follow the path of such MacGuffins as the cow-creamer, the notebook, and a policeman’s helmet you will find yourself checked at every turn by the outrageous and highly professional mocking of amateur theatricals.

When all’s said, I have to say that what I liked best was Chandler’s forthrightly clueless and feckless Bertie Wooster. His appeals to the audience have the brash charm of someone who knows you can’t possibly think too ill of him—privilege, m’boy. Wooster opens Act 2 sitting in a bubble bath and Chandler renders charmingly the sangfroid of someone able to field the impertinence of several hundred prying eyes suddenly present in his bathroom. His Wooster is always the life of the party and very much the guiding spirit of his “one-man show.”

Bertie Wooster (Chandler Williams)

Bertie Wooster (Chandler Williams)

The other great asset is Burton’s Jeeves. No doubt we’ve all seen some version of the stiff-upper-lip of the indefatigable English valet, but Jeeves is more—he’s apt to be psychic about what’s to come, encyclopedic about what has occurred, and never the least bit ruffled even when having to climb in or out windows. It’s all part of serving perfectly, with only the differing amounts of dryness in his tone to let us know his view of the situation.

That said, I wish there were more of the two titular characters interacting, which is really the heart of the thing. I am aware of how readily the Brits must guffaw at males in female wigs and feminine trappings affecting a falsetto—Monty Python did it, Benny Hill did it, and no doubt countless others—but such humor strikes me as a sepia-toned invocation of those glory days when theater was a boys only affair, letting us smirk at the drollery of the masquerade. Granted, a joke isn’t dated if it still makes an audience laugh, and Kobich’s fun with Aunt Dahlia, and Burton’s with Madeline Bassett, an ingenue of the old school, add their charms to the proceedings as well.

Steppings as Aunt Dahlia (Eddie Korbich), Bertie (Chandler Williams)

Steppings as Aunt Dahlia (Eddie Korbich), Bertie (Chandler Williams)

Still, I was most amused at Bertie’s efforts to convey the intricacies of this perfect nonsense from his point of view, because ultimately, his is the view that matters—everything is on the verge of becoming a disastrous embarrassment that will never happen so long as Jeeves is on the job. With its penultimate show of the season, Hartford Stage offers perfectly silly escapist entertainment—but, as the saying goes, nothing’s perfect. You might find yourself wondering why a giggle at 1930s Britain, complete with fascists on the rise and a baffled upper-crust, should be such a timely target for spoofing.

Steppings (Eddie Korbich), Bertie Wooster (Chandler Williams), Jeeves (Arnie Burton)

Steppings (Eddie Korbich), Bertie Wooster (Chandler Williams), Jeeves (Arnie Burton)

Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense
A new play from the works of P.G. Wodehouse
By the Goodale Brothers
Directed by Sean Foley

Scenic Design: Alice Power; Costume Design: Alice Power; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design & Original Music: John Gromada; Choreographer: Adam Cates; Dialect Coach: Ben Furey; Production Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist; Assistant Stage Manager: Hope Rose Kelly; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe

Cast: Arnie Burton, Eddie Korbich, Chandler Williams

Hartford Stage
March 21-April 20, 2019

Sexual Politics

Review of Cloud 9, Hartford Stage

Caryl Churchill’s wildly irreverent and comic play Cloud 9 addresses sexual politics, and how mores change with the times. It also shows how the past—here, the British past, specifically—is always being re-imagined. Act One’s lively burlesque of Victorian erotic relations in the 1870s is paralleled with a rather more naturalistic rendering set in 1979 in Act Two. The play dates from 1979, so Act Two, originally, was very contemporary indeed. The main difficulty now is that we’ve almost gotten to the point at which “the 1970s” may inspire a burlesque spirit similar to what Churchill makes of the 1870s. If played more for laughs—such as its invocation of a New Agey “goddess”—Act Two might have more bite. In any case, its effort to imagine a sort of social utopia of sexual relations and child-rearing may strike some as quaint, others as progressive—even now. Or especially now?

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Which is a way of saying that the past’s social progress can still present a challenge in times of virulent conservatism. In any case, Cloud 9 remains a challenging and amorphous play that provides equal parts entertainment and food for thought. Launched initially as Margaret Thatcher came to power, Cloud 9 may make us oddly nostalgic for the hopes of earlier eras.

Cathy (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Cathy (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Casting is key to the success of the production at Hartford Stage, directed by Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson, in her directorial debut. Because the cast of seven actors must play the 15 characters of both acts—in some cases cross-gender and contrary to age—and because who doubles as whom is established by Churchill, the overall effect depends upon actors who can manage the considerable disparity in roles. Here, Mark H. Dold enacts the most striking transformation, setting the tone for both acts. In Act One, he plays the repressive patriarch Clive, looking and sounding very Victorian indeed, then plays a preening little girl, Cathy, in Act Two; in both cases, Dold’s character lords it over the others. That shift is the most telling in this play of shifting orientations, and Dold carries it off splendidly.

Front: Edward (Mia Dillon), Betty (Tom Pecinka), Joshua (William John Austin); Rear: Ellen (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold), Maud (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Front: Edward (Mia Dillon), Betty (Tom Pecinka), Joshua (William John Austin); Rear: Ellen (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold), Maud (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Act One takes us to a colonial outpost in South Africa where Clive resides with his family: demure wife Betty (Tom Pecinka), adolescent son Edward (Mia Dillon), who has a penchant for playing with dolls, baby Vickie (who is a doll), and mother-in-law Maud (Emily Gunyou Halaas); there’s also a manservant Joshua (William John Austin), who has renounced his people through his attachment to Clive; a maid, Ellen (Sarah Lemp), who is very affectionate toward Betty; Mrs. Saunders (Lemp again), a very independent widow; and a very manly explorer, Harry Bagley (Chandler Williams). The amusement is in seeing how a surface “normality” is constantly undermined by the kinds of subversive urges that, time was, would’ve been the subject of considerable repression. Comic moments, such as Ellen’s attempt to seduce Betty, and Harry misreading signals from Clive, are set against bits that are almost poignant, such as Joshua’s song at Christmas, a plaintive love note to his oppressors. Mia Dillon, a veteran actress, is quite remarkable as little Edward, and Tom Pecinka languishes quite ladylike as doleful Betty.

In Act Two, Cathy’s winsome childishness is the best feature, as the play’s treatment of the problem of parenting, as an ongoing chore without nursemaids to take up the slack, hits a contemporary note. Cathy’s mother is Lin (Sarah Lemp), a lesbian with eyes for Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas), the doll grown up, we’re to imagine, who has a son we never see and whom she is attempting to raise with help from her novelist husband, Martin (Chandler Williams). Martin is a nice send-up of the "enlightened" male of the period, no less overbearing than Clive, but in a more sensitive way, trying to be supportive and to share parenting duties and the like. His hair and clothes recall aspects of the 1970s most of us would rather forget. Gunyou Halaas, in contrast, wears her retro threads quite well and portrays Victoria as a woman on the verge of change.

Martin (Chandler Williams)

Martin (Chandler Williams)

Such is also the case with Betty (Mia Dillon, now playing her own age), who has a deliberate look of Thatcher about her, but is much more liberal. She takes us into her confidence about achieving orgasm manually, fully in the spirit of Our Bodies, Our Selves. Meanwhile, Edward (Tom Pecinka) is a gardener in the local park—where all bring their children to tire themselves out—who is trying to be a “wife” to Gerry (William John Austin), a rather feckless young man who prefers to enjoy a liberated gay lifestyle.

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas), Edward (Tom Pecinka) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas), Edward (Tom Pecinka) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The aspect of Act Two that never completely jells is the effort to find some common ground for all these inter-relations. Certain moments, such as the song the entire cast sings, seem almost a parody of togetherness, though Williamson is unwilling to satirize progressiveness the way Act One easily satirizes patriarchy. And yet there’s no escaping the fact that seeing same-sex couples as boring—as couples—as hetero couples often are, while it may help support what must once have been a striking notion—that couples are much the same, regardless of what sort of pairing constitutes them—doesn’t make for intriguing theater. It doesn’t help that in Act Two only Dold is still playing against type. The other actors are in roles they might be cast for in conventional casting. Perhaps it’s time to shake-up casting a bit further.

The reappearance of certain figures from Act One in the play’s conclusion makes for a surprisingly fond return. Without being sentimental in effect, the final note arrives as a kind of détente with previous generations: while no doubt at a loss about how the world would change, they may at least be allowed the dignity of their historical situation. It helps, of course, that Dold’s Clive and Pecinka’s Betty are so charismatic they seem almost archetypal. Or is that just a way of saying that some things never change?

Mrs. Sanders (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Mrs. Sanders (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

 

 

Cloud 9
By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Elizabeth Williamson

Scenic Design: Nick Vaughan; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: York Kennedy; Sound Design & Original Composition: Andre Pluess; Wig & Hair Design: Cookie Jordan; Dramaturg: Fiona Kyle; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Production Stage Manager: Denise Cardarelli; Assistant Stage Manager: Ellen Goldberg; Casting: Jack Bowden, CSA, Binder Casting

Cast: William John Austin; Mark H. Dold; Mia Dillon; Emily Gunyou Halaas; Sarah Lemp; Tom Pecinka; Chandler Williams

Hartford Stage
February 23-March 19, 2017