Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Theater review: Plaza Theatre Company’s See How They Run leaves you rolling in the aisles
This hidden gem puts on a phenomenal farce.
CLEBURNE Plaza Theatre Company, in quaint downtown Cleburne, has drawn attention from patrons and critics from across the Dallas-Fort Worth area in recent years as a hidden gem. Situated on the edge of the Metroplex, PTC has gained a reputation for high-quality theatre that often entices talent to make the long drive from the city to participate in its productions. I expected an entertaining evening on Saturday when I traveled there to review the opening weekend of See How They Run, a World War II era farce by British playwright Philip King, but PTC left my expectations in the dust. See How They Run is one of the most delightful evenings of theatre I have experienced in years, leaving me utterly breathless with laughter and opening the 2013 season by setting a comedic bar that will be difficult to surpass.
See How They Run is a classic example of farce, complete with mistaken identities, fast-paced and razor-sharp repartee, ludicrously improbably plot lines, and slapstick humor peaking in a chase scene so perfectly timed and executed that I marvel at the hours of rehearsal that must have gone into staging it. The play is perfectly suited to PTC's theater-in-the-round space, involving quick entrances and exits through multiple doors and allowing Director Ben Phillips to maximize the intricate character twists and subplots by playing to a 360 degree audience.
The playful 1940's mood is set by popular wartime songs like "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" playing before curtain and during intermission. The play takes place entirely in the hall of the vicarage in Merton-cum-Middlewick, and the set design by JaceSon P. Barrus and props by Tammie Phillips are perfect down to the last doily, mismatched floral rug, and tufted pillow. Costume Designer Stacey Greenawalt King never misses a beat, and every character is outfitted beautifully, be they former actress, vicar, or American G.I. Visually, See How They Run is a gorgeous display of minute attention to detail and dedication to period authenticity. G. Aaron Siler's light and sound design is pretty uncomplicated with the only challenge being balancing the shrieks and shouts of various actors through their head mics, an occasional problem but not to the point of distraction. On all fronts, the production quality of See How They Run is superb.
If the crew shines, however, the cast is blinding in its talent, comedic timing, and obvious enjoyment of the show. Joy Millard as Penelope Toop, an American stage actress turned English vicar's wife, leads a team of actors beautifully through a script riddled with moments that would land less dedicated and talented players flat on their faces, both literally and comically. Penelope, young and impulsive, does not fit the image that the little village wants for its vicar's wife. Millard is lighthearted and perfectly flippant. Her performance is evocative of the comedienne's of the Golden Age Hollywood like Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, and Katherine Hepburn. She is feminine and full of energy without slipping into a manic stereotype; indeed, her poise is often all that grounds the madcap action of the play. Penelope's constant missteps in propriety and etiquette often land her in hot water with the villagers, led by the prudish Miss Skillon, played in this performance by Stacy Blanton. Blanton's performance is the perfect complement to Millard's. Where Millard flits, Blanton plods – but she does so while maintaining the lightness and quickness required by the script. Miss Skillon is less offended by Penelope's manners and more so by her unrequited love for Penelope's husband, the Rev. Lionel Toop, played by Robert Shores. Though enamored of his vivacious wife, Lionel doesn't seem quite to know how to handle her, and Miss Skillon's constant reminders of her inappropriate behavior lead to frequent rows between the married couple.
As the show opens, Miss Skillon has arrived to complain about Penelope's usurpation of the decoration of the pulpit for the Harvest Festival, which is Miss Skillon's territory. However, it is soon apparent that her real purpose is to tattle to Lionel that Penelope was seen "yoo-hooing" at an American soldier in a Jeep in the village earlier that day. The soldier is Corporal Clive Winton, played by David Goza, who used to tread the boards with Penelope in America in a production of Noel Coward's famous stage comedy Private Lives, though none of the characters is aware of his identity yet. Having sown the seeds of marital discord, Miss Skillon attempts to make her exit, but her bicycle has been punctured by sassy Ida, as played by Erica Moroney, a good-intentioned Cockney maid who is as subtle as a ton of bricks.
Though the cast in general is fantastic, especially Millard, Goza, and G. Aaron Siler in a side-splitting and unforgettable supporting performance as Rev. Arthur Humphrey in the second act, Moroney steals this show. Every guffaw, every nugget of wise-cracking Cockney bluntness, and every gesture and movement shows a comedic timing that is tailor-made for this role. The character of Ida plays witness to the night's tomfoolery, the only one to have even half an idea of what's going on and have enough sense to keep quiet about what she's seen, though she has plenty to say about everything else. Moroney shines in the role and her performance raises the bar for everyone who shares the stage with her.
The tripping, giddy back-and-forth repartee between Millard and Goza is another highlight. Their familiarity implies an intimacy without bleeding over the line into any insinuation of sexual attraction, which is difficult to accomplish when you have an actress straddling an actor on the floor calling him a brute. They work very well together but also separately, as they spearhead two of many story lines that intertwine and tangle up into one big knot of extremely well-executed farce. Stephen Lindsay as Penelope's uncle the Bishop of Lax is another performance peppered with expertly crafted moments of comedy, and Siler's foppish Rev. Humphrey sent the whole production over the top with a masterful combination of physicality and timing that made me laugh to the point of wiping away tears. John Lewis as Sergeant Towers and Kevin Poole as The Intruder round out the talented supporting cast.
I cannot say enough about my experience at Plaza Theatre Company. The small-town surroundings and very comfortable theater space were enhanced by friendly, smiling volunteers and a truly marvelous and supportive audience. The show itself was such a fun riot that I may make the drive again before the run ends January 26th.
PTC has a great season in front of it with a lineup that includes The Sound of Music, Pillow Talk, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and other audience favorites. I'm glad I made my first visit to Cleburne's small theatre with its deservedly big reputation early in the year. I can't wait to see what the rest of this season brings us.
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