Review: See How They Run at Barrington Stage Company
by Gail Burns and Larry Murray
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Larry Murray: See How They Run is the comedy that I have been waiting for all summer, funny, and farcical, with the unique humor we associate with the British. While French farce has its characters unexpectedly popping out of various doors, See How They Run lives up to its title and the love the Brits have of chase scenes, each appearance slightly crazier than the last.
Gail Burns: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” - Mark Twain
I am sure Philip King had this famous quotation from Mark Twain in mind when he wrote this back in 1944. In the grand tradition of British farce it is full of sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing. If you are in the mood for a door-slamming, face-slapping, vicars-in-their-knickers good time, this is the play for you!
Larry: We have to thank Barrington Stage Company for resurrecting this British gem because from what I can see, it never had a Broadway run. Yet it is one of the most popular plays for community groups to perform in the USA. You know, in London, on opening night in 1944 the war was still on and three bombs went off nearby, causing one of the actors to complain that they drowned out his funniest lines. But that audience didn’t budge. Judging from the opening night laughter, it is as funny in 2012 as it was 68 years ago.
Gail: Definitely! If you wait impatiently for your Brit-coms on PBS every weekend and gnash your teeth when the endless pledge drives rob you of them, you will love this play.
The fact that Cary Donaldson who plays the Reverend Lionel Toop looks very much like the late Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame gave the hilarity factor a big boost for me.
Larry: Jeff Steitzer directed… and did a great job,especially the choreography of the chase scenes, and the mimed sequence where Penelope offers the Rev. Humphrey a drink that was real at the start and imaginary at the end. It is one of those clever pieces of stage business that has to be seen and can’t be properly described in just one sentence.
Similarly, there was the scene with the four vicars on the sofa in a hilarious dance-like sequence that was pure comic genius. I had looked forward to John Rando directing (he was originally announced for that task last Spring) but Steitzer was every bit as resourceful as Rando, the pacing and momentum being just right for me.
Gail: I thought the pace could have been quickened just a tad, but we remind our readers that we see shows very early in their runs, and there was a last minute cast change here. No doubt everything will gel and the fun will just zip along after a few more performances.
Larry: Yes, due to a sudden illness, Don Lee Sparks who was to play Sergeant Towers had to drop out of the production. In his place, proving the show must go on is Andy Nogasky, who just last week finished the run of All My Sons in the role of neighbor Frank Lubey.
The production looked fabulous, and the set was fully lit when we arrived, giving us a chance to familiarize ourselves with the Vicar’s residence. We quickly meet the quirky characters in rapid succession, beginning with Ida, the Maid (Dina Thomas), the annoying but soon to be hilarious Miss Skillon (Michele Tauber), and then The Reverend Lionel Troop (Donaldson) and his American wife, Penelope (Lisa McCormick). That quartet of characters is joined in rapid succession by a further quintet of actors, complete with complications, setting up the whole story.
Gail: Reverend Toop, the Vicar of Merton-cum-Middlewick, has recently married a vivacious and curvaceous American actress, much to the consternation of all the maiden ladies of his parish, especially the tweedy and rotund Miss Skillon. Set in the midst of World War II, Allied troops are still stationed in Britain, and Hitler’s German army is determined to conquer the British Isles.
On the Saturday night that Reverend Toop and the church glee singers head off to entertain some of the brave boys in uniform, Penelope is visited by an old actor friend, Clive Winton (Michael Brusasco), now serving as a Lance-Corporal, and her uncle, the Bishop of Lax (Keith Jochim). Miss Skillon is lurking on the premises trying to catch Mrs. Toop doing something scandalous, while poor Ida is trying unsuccessfully to enjoy her evening off.
The Reverend Arthur Humphrey (Jeff Brooks), who is preaching the following morning, shows up, as does an escaped German POW (Jim Schubin), desperate for a safe disguise. Finally the British troops, in the person of Sergeant Towers (Andy Nogasky), arrive to discover what all the commotion is about, which leads to the restoration of everyone’s rightful clothing but really no happy ending because the muddle and mayhem threaten to continue long after the final curtain has rung down.
Larry: They say it is based on the nursery rhyme Three Blind Mice, which pretty well describes the confusion that reigns on stage as the characters switch places multiple times. The actors sure got a workout with all that rolling around on the floor, the fight scenes, and of course the insane half-dressed chases. The sound designer Jessica Paz even worked in snippets of music to accompany the mayhem, and the crazier it got on stage, the more the audience ate it up. Comedy is rarely this well done, or so delicious to watch.
Gail: Director Steitzer’s use of that 1940′s Looney Tunes-style chase music during those scenes, really added to the hilarity. I loved the gentlemen’s unique and graceful stag leaps over the various unconcious bodies that littered the stage. I counted the doors on Bill Clarke’s handsome set – something every critic must do before seeing a farce – and there are six. At one point a different hysterical character appeared suddenly from each aperture, let out simultaneous howls of anguish and then vanished as quickly as they had come. That takes real timing.
Larry: That busy-body Miss Skillon was played by the funniest person I have seen on stage in ages, Michele Tauber. She and Steitzer must have hit it off because she does some of the most acrobatic pratfalls I have ever seen on stage, it is as if her body is made of silly putty. At the same time, everyone who interacts with her – and everyone has their moment – gets to jolt the audience into gales of laughter. In fact, I was so busy laughing I didn’t have time to note down the plot, Besides it kept changing as one character stole the others clothes and identities. Come to think of it, that’s why there wasn’t any substantial character development. But it’s not a drama after all, it’s just plain fun.
Gail: After a first act spent in high dudgeon over Penelope’s penchant for wearing trousers, and Ida’s puncturing of her bicycle tires, Tauber spent the rest of the play in a drunken stupor with her frilly knickers literally in a twist, draped over sofas and balustrades, and stuffed repeatedly into the coat closet with clergymen in various states of undress. Everything about Tauber’s Miss Skillon was funny, her voice, her costume, her hair, and her willingness to roll and tumble about in knee socks and a skirt – a well known fashion faux pas for anyone who’s graduated from grammar school – earned her high marks in my book.
I also adored Thomas’ Ida. From her headshot she is a lovely young woman, but through posture and facial expression alone she managed to transform herself into a dim-witted and frumpy Cockney minx with a delightful twinkle in her eye. I was very sorry Steitzer didn’t give the cast individual bows because I was really ready to whoop it up for Tauber and Thomas.
Costume designer Sara Jean Tosetti only gets to have fun with the ladies’ costumes, since the gentlemen all wear clerical garb or military uniforms, and she has had a ball with Tauber and Thomas’ witty ensembles. But I thought she missed the mark with McCormick. What was with those green shoes? And high heels in a farce? There’s a broken ankle waiting to happen! Surely a vicar’s wife, even one who has had a life upon the wicked stage, would wear flats for an evening at home durring war time.
Larry: The whole ruckus is caused by Miss Skillon in the first place, when she stops by to complain about Penelope’s usurpation of the altar decorations for the Harvest festival and the fact that she was an actress (GASP!). It’s typical of church politics. Penelope explains the change this way: “Well darling,we ran rather short of chrysanthemums. I’m afraid the pulpit is mostly decorated with turnips and leeks.”
Gail: Why is it that Anglicans (aka Church of England or C of E) are so inherently funny? I am an Episcopalian, which is the American strain of Anglicanism, and, just like penguins, we cannot help being amusing in that stiff, waddling, suit-wearing kind of way. We cannot dance and to hear us tackle a Spiritual on a Sunday morning is appalling. When threatened with hurricane, fire and famine, we are the first to throw a fund-raising cocktail party. Heck, we ARE a farce!
So it is no wonder that when King sat down to write something funny, he immediately thought of the Anglican clergy and their flocks. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the genesis for this play wasn’t King’s desire to write a scene in which three Anglican clergy (two vicars, one in his dog-collar and one in his underwear, and a bishop in his pajamas) and two other men randomly dressed as Anglican clergy (the German POW and Lance-Corporal Winton) chased each other gaily through garden in the moonlight. How that scene came to be and how the situation sorted itself out afterwards were of little consequence. What would sell the tickets was the promise of Anglicans behaving even more ridiculously than usual.
Larry: See How They Run is theatre that is easy to like. It is unabashedly good old fashioned humor in the British style where the jokes are more about class and your place in society than you find in French farce, which is about extra-marital affairs and bumping unexpectedly into your neighbor in the nearest house of ill repute.
This was the first comedy of the season where my sides hurt when the show was over. It’s sure good to laugh at things in these troubled times, so See How They Run gets both of my thumbs up,and maybe a couple of big toes too.
Gail: I would argue that The Great American Trailer Park Musical at the Theater Barn, which you didn’t see, Larry, is even funnier, but that is only by the small increment of big hair and garden gnomes. This one is a corker, as the British say, and a great escape from life’s cares for a two and a half hours.
Barrington Stage Company presents See How They Run by Philip King and directed by Jeff Steitzer. Scenic Design, Bill Clarke; Costume Design, Sara Jean Tosetti; Lighting Designer, Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design, Jessica Paz; Fight Choreographer, Ryan Winkles; Directof of Production, Jeff Roudabush.
Cast: Dina Thomas (Ida a Maid), Michele Tauber (Miss Skillon), Cary Donaldson (The Reverend Lionel Toop), Lisa McCormick (Penlope Toop, his wife), Michael Brusasco (Lance-Corporal Clive Winton), Jim Schubin (The Intruder), Keith Jochim (The Bish of Lax), Jeff Brooks (The Reverend Arthur Humphrey), Andy Nogasky (Sergeant Towers). On the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, August 9-26, 2012. Three Acts. About two and a half hours including one 15 minute intermission. Union Street Pittsfield. barringtonstageco.org 413-236-8888.