Comedy comes to Westport, New Canaan
It’s an old showbiz maxim: “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” For confirmation, check out two current, amusing though not completely on the mark attractions. “A Flea in Her Ear” at Westport Country Playhouse and “Kiss Me Kate” at Summer Theater of New Canaan are enjoyable without being memorable.
“Flea” is a French farce from the turn-of-the-20th-century by George Feydeau, here in a new version by the skilled David Ives. We know what that means: slamming doors, mistaken identities, non-stop action, plus risqué banter and lots of bedroom panic.
Victor Chandebise, an upright businessman, is apparently too distracted to satisfy his wife, Raymonde, in the sack. Or is his inability to perform a result of his being depleted by an affair with someone else? To trap him, Raymonde gets her friend Lucienne to pen an invitation to a rendezvous at the notorious Frisky Puss Hotel, hoping he’ll show up ready to fire.
Toss in Lucienne’s jealous, volatile, gun-toting Spanish husband, plus the household cook married to the butler but enamored of Chandebise’s cousin, Camille (whose speech impediment prevents his pronouncing consonants), a kinky doctor, a British lecher, drunks and assorted other randy riff-raff. Don’t forget a revolving bed. The stage is thus set for the knockabout second act which takes place at the sleazy hotel and involves a boatload of just-missed encounters.
The over-extended third act of this lengthy evening unravels the knots, exposing the characters’ follies and their reconciliation with an ordered society. . At Westport, under the whirlwind direction of Mark Lamos, the finer points are missed: actors rush over lines and, in some cases, anticipate jokes.
Still, Michael Gotch is a hoot as Don Carlos. Even his unruly hair is a character. As the speech-deprived Camille, Mic Matarrese is a one-man bundle of merriment, while Elizabeth Heflin is a lovely Raymonde and Lee E. Ernst endearing in the dual role of the nearly-cuckolded Victor and Poche, a lookalike bellboy. Others in the large (14 member) cast keep up their spirits - and ours.
The comic spirit is sledgehammered into submission in New Canaan’s musically lovely but comically vapid rendering of Cole Porter’s great “Kiss Me Kate.” Substituting busy-ness for genuine humor drags down the production.
It’s saved near the end by an hilarious performance of the surefire “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” by the show’s two gangsters, played by Brett Alters and Brian Silliman. Thanks, gents.
Sam and Bella Spewack’s book juxtaposes a troupe of strolling players performing a tryout of “The Taming of the Shrew” in Baltimore. The onstage action -- the wooing of the virago Katharine by the determined Petruchio -- is mirrored in the love/hate relationship of Lilli and Fred, the two actors who portray those characters and the secondary couple, the flirty Lois (also Bianca) and inveterate gambler Bill (also Lucentio)
Director Allegra Libonati gussies it all up with a cart-pulling donkey, several instances of breaking the fourth wall by having actors converse with front-row customers, songs “illustrated” and “Shrew” performed as if by purposely bad actors.
There are compensations. Thanks to choreographer Doug Shankman, the dancing is accomplished and “Too Darn Hot” sizzles. Mary McNulty is a fiery Lilli/Katharine with a gorgeous voice. David Sattler sings beautifully as Fred/Petruchio though his acting is both wooden and nigh inarticulate. Tim Falter is a sympathetic Bill/Lucentio and Rachel MacIsaac a cute, over-the-top Lois/Bianca.
What matters most is the score, one of Porter’s finest: “So in Love,” “Were Thine That Special Face, “Always True to You in My Fashion,” even “I Am Ashamed That Woman Are So Simple,” the misogynistic aria, taken directly from Shakespeare, that no one ever knows what to do with. (“Put your hand ‘neath the sole of your husband’s foot” - indeed!). Yet, under music director Kenneth Gartman, the 11-piece orchestra more than makes up for the evening’s shortcomings.
David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater scene appears monthly.
“A Flea in Her Ear” is at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport, through July 28. Call 203-227-4177 or visit wesportplayhouse.org
“Kiss Me Kate” is at the Summer Theater of New Canaan, Waveny Park Tent Theater, 11 Farm Rd., New Canaan, through July 29. Call 203-966-4634 or visit stonc.org