|Chris Byrne, Erin Bickler, and Jason Fox|
By Tina Arth
In my book, HART’s current production, Philip King’s classic British farce See How They Run, begins with two strikes against it – I am not a big fan of the genre, and British humor often leaves me cold. Once the door is opened for slapstick comedy, community theater productions are notorious for going over the top, obliterating the fine line between silly fun and total train wreck. Thus I was quite shocked to find that HART’s offering manages to hit a home run – it’s really funny, and it just made me laugh. A lot. Even the best script can only succeed when there is a careful mixture of solid comic timing, absurd physical comedy, and a director willing to impose some restraint on the cast when they cross the line, as they inevitably will. Happily, Director William Crawford picked the right actors and he lets them mine their roles for maximum humor, but the show never descends into madcap buffoonery.
The premise is, of course, utterly silly. It’s 1949 (updated slightly from the original 1943), and the young and lovely American actress Penelope Toop has scandalized the tiny village of Merton-cum-Middlewick by marrying the local vicar, Rev. Lionel Toop. Local spinster/prude Miss Skillon, having set her cap for the vicar, is particularly outraged. Send the vicar away temporarily, add in an American soldier, another reverend, a Bishop, a Russian spy, (all eventually adorned in clerical garb), an officious if clueless policeman, a wonderfully clever and irreverent maid, and lots of doors and the ingredients are in place for the mistaken identities, near misses, and general mayhem (including a great deal of actual running) that are essential to full-fledged farce.
Technically, the show’s leads are probably Penelope (Kaitlynn Baugh) and Corporal Clive Winton (Blaine Vincent III) – and certainly both do a great job. In a romantic comedy, they would be the fresh-faced ingénue couple that winds up together at the end of Act II. However, in this farce Penelope is happily married – so the great chemistry between this pair is channeled into friendship punctuated by enough bickering to make it clear that there will be no hanky-panky. Reverend Toop (Jason Fox) plays the classic innocent, accentuated by the fact that he spends most of the play in his underwear, and much of it locked in the closet with the love-stricken Miss Skillon.
The best roles go to Miss Skillon (Erin Bickler) and the maid, Ida (Chris Byrne). These two fierce comediennes attack every scene with such commitment that they seem to be vying for the title of Best Actor. Bickler’s piercing, consistently outraged voice and physical fearlessness (she reminds me of the great Joan Davis and may, in fact, be made of unbreakable rubber) keep the audience in stitches, and she makes a great drunk. Byrne uses her mobile face, snide affect, and exquisite timing to steal the scene every time she appears – and when she and Bickler share the stage it’s tough to know just who to watch.
The chase scenes would seem overdone if they were the sole focus, but both Ida and Penelope maintain a façade of “business as usual” while up to five real and faux-clerics tear around the set, leaping over Miss Skillon’s prostrate form - the timing and blocking are exquisite when she’s there, and even funnier when she is gone but they keep leaping.
Director Crawford also designed the lovely and detailed set, made even finer by the stone fireplace (courtesy of Woody Woodbury) so realistic that some audience members sneaked onto the stage at the end of the evening just to check it out. Chris Byrne’s costumes (in particular, Ida’s polka dot dress and the flowing trousers on Penelope and Miss Skillon) work beautifully to establish the time, place, and social caste of each character.
HART’s theme this season is “Laugh Along With HART” – See How They Run is a great beginning!
See How They Run is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through September 24th, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 on Sundays.