Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Heartbreak House

Heartbreak House

by George Bernard Shaw
directed by Ellen Geer

review by Phillip Kelly

I hadn't read Heartbreak House before seeing Theatricum Botanicum's production,  but I was immediately reminded of Russian literature: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorky. Writers that delved into the infrastructure of the elite that do nothing. Oh, they know a lot about things, and they'd be happy to fill in your day with nothing but their opinions and beliefs. Yet it still doesn't seem to be enough for them - they yearn for a certain social sadomasochism. Using their cleverness as torture devices, to tinker and toy with each other (and themselves). They never quite feeling love, though succumb to enough moments of fleeting passion to feel heartbreak, all the while making sure no one else falls in love in the process. Like the great Russian social satirists, Shaw brings his story to life with a healthy dose of wit, wisdom and heart - even though the final piece may be lacking within many of the characters.

If you don't know the story, skip this paragraph, as the show is much more fun not knowing who anyone is as you go along. The story takes place in the country, in a house where an aging captain, Captain Shotover (William Dennis Hunt), who's wiser than he lets on, spends his days accepting his daughter, Mrs. Hesione Hushabye's (Melora Marshal) guests. Hesione is a first class tinkerer of relationships, and her guest for the day is Ellie Dunn (Willow Geer). Ellie has made an arrangement to be married to a rich man, Boss Mangan (Alan Blumenfeld), several years her senior, and Hesione is going to put a stop to it. She's not only invited Mangan for the day, but also Ellie's father, Mazzini Dunn (David Stifel). Hesione and Ellie make quick friends, and Ellie admits that she's marrying Mangan out of honor for all the times he's helped her father and that she's in love with another - an adventurer. Her naivete is pronounced when she admits that Othello and Desdemona's relationship is the height of romance for her, except the part in which Othello kills Desdemona. But her world is torn asunder when she finds out her romantic adventurer is actually Hesione's husband, Hector Hushabye (Mark Lewis). Even more so when Mangan doesn't turn out to be exactly who he says he is. Added to the mix are the long lost sister of Hesione, an equal match in tinkering, Ariadne Utterwood (Susan Angelo) and her buffoon of a brother-in-law Randall Utterwood (Aaron Hendry), who is madly in love with Ariadne, and you have a stew of about every ingredient you could possibly want in a comedy. Include a slippery character only known as Burgler (Ed Giron), Nurse Guiness (Katherin James), even those that play the maids and servants move about the stage as if they are equally as important as the next person, and they do it with equal skill and you have a mouthful of stew!

And what a stew it is, as I leave this metaphor behind.

This show is crisp and hilarious. If comedy is timing, these guys sold their soul to Cronos. There isn't a missed beat among the performers. Ellen Geer has captured the perfect tone with each of them; they play the parts with finesse and ease, vocally, physically and emotionally. I haven't seen a better rounded troupe of repertory actors than this in LA. Willow Geer goes from naive to broken-hearted to manipulative to ecstatic to in love and makes every shift as natural as the tides of the ocean; a grounded and incredible performance. Melora Marshall, who along with Willow is also in Theatricum's Measure for Measure, does a complete 180 from her performance as Lucio and here imbibes in such sultry femininity that she is a storm of every womanly wile and proves she's one of the best stage actors in Los Angeles. William Dennis Hunt is perfect as the world weary Captain, every dryly delivered, thrown away line, earmarked with a hint of sarcasm would surely win over the most cynical of theatre goers. Susan Angelo glides around the stage, controlling the room with her every gesture, even stopping for a moment to give some of her lines to a howling dog (Yes there was a dog on stage! And Angelo was brilliant!) Aaron Hendry (also Measure for Measure) is riotous as the bumbling, emotionally stunted man-child. Mark Lewis is dashing as the brother who knows better but plays along anyway. Blumenfeld is all power and weakness as an outsider who can't help but be drawn into the madness. David Stifel blossoms from a rather conservative gentleman to someone who is more curious and easily entertained by the madness. Everyone is given their time on stage and everyone knows how to use it without overpowering the story.

As the show progressed I realized just how difficult a show it it is to pull off, especially since the last third becomes suddenly very esoteric and symbolic, adding a level of profound social satire that you don't see coming. You realize just how much work had to go into the first 2/3rds to build to it. To allow us to believe where these characters are, and what they are by the final lights out. "What" is more important then "where" in this show, and if the proper building blocks aren't laid out in the beginning, you'll lose your audience in the end. This gave me a whole new level of appreciation for the company, the production and Shaw. Kudos to everyone involved.

Heartbreak Hotel is currently playing in rep with Measure for Measure (which I've also reviewed) and A Midsummer's Night Dream.

Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd. Topanga
For tickets and times visit www.theatricum.com or call 310-455-3723

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