The Arts Club definitely takes a risk as it opens its 2009/2010 season with not one, but two farces: one set in 19th century Russia and the other in 1960s London. But that risk definitely pays off in a dazzling show of physicality by the cast led by Sasa Brown in The Marriage Proposal and Charlie Gallant in Black Comedy.
First up is The Marriage Proposal by Anton Chekhov as the “curtain warmer” to the main event. In his Playbill notes, director Dean Paul Gibson tells us that the original curtain-warmer written to accompany Shaffer’s Black Comedy “wasn’t as interesting and exciting” as they had wanted and the idea came from Bill Millerd to use the Chekhov piece instead. While it is impossible for me to make any comparisons to the traditional curtain warmer as I have not seen it, it is evident by the end of The Marriage Proposal that as a piece of standalone theatre this choice was definitely a good one.
Only 15 or so minutes in length, The Marriage Proposal brings us an incredibly funny farce complete with the broad stroke characters that are necessary. But more importantly beyond the comedy of Chekov’s written word comes a level of physical comedy from all three actors (Simon Bradbury, Sasa Brown and Jeff Meadows) that are simultaneously hilarious and astounding. Brown in particular does an amazing job especially as her character goes into “heat” at the mention of a possible marriage. This was a wonderful start to the evening.
Following intermission we moved on to the main event. In Black Comedy, Schaffer opens his play in the dark while the actors carry on acting as if nothing were out of the ordinary. It is when the power goes out in the house that the lights go up on stage and the audience watches as the actors maneuver in the “dark”. This conceit is actually used quite effectively throughout the play as various light sources come and go, some with hilarious results.
As a farce, Schaffer continues to layer the improbable with the more improbable and with the characters in the “dark” most of the time allows for some very funny business on stage. Particularly entertaining were the varied methods that each of the actors took to finding their way in the “dark”.
The standout here is definitely Charlie Gallant as Brindsley Miller who is given so much physical work during the show he is absolutely drenched from sweat by the end. There is one particular extended scene, which I won’t spoil here, where Gallant is kept particularly busy while conversations between the other characters carry on oblivious to what he is doing because they cannot “see” him. I couldn’t help but think this must have been an incredibly difficult scene not only for Gallant but for the other actors as well given they couldn’t wait for the audience laughter to subside before continuing their dialogue.
The rest of the cast though is also up to everything Shaffer throws at them including a delightful performance from Nicola Lipman as neighbor Miss Furnival who despite her professed abstinence manages to imbibe a little too much. Meadows, Brown and Bradbury return from The Marriage Proposal and are easily able to throw aside their Russian characters to take up these new ones; Meadows as another neighbor who obviously has feelings for Brindsley, Brown as the vengeful ex-girlfriend who makes a surprise appearance in the dark and Bradbury as Brindley’s possible future father-in-law.
Rounding out the cast are appearances from Sean Devine as a London Electrical worker whose identify is at first mistaken and Simon Webb as millionaire Georg Bamberger, whose exit had us gasping despite knowing how it was going to happen.
Director Gibson has obviously given his actors permission to explode here with a literal physical energy that both Chekov and Shaffer demand but obviously with a deft hand to ensure things don’t get totally out of control. Some of the business he has provided, especially to Gallant, is simply brilliant and plays homage to some of the great masters of physical comedy including Buster Keaton, Jack Ritter, Rowan Atkinson and of course, with a footstool playing centre stage, Dick Van Dyke.
Set designer Ted Roberts and lighting designer John Webber have done a terrific job with both the simplicity of The Marriage Proposal and the larger expanse of Brindley’s flat in Black Comedy. We can’t help but think Webber was excited by the challenges provided by Shaffer’s script with respect to the use of lighting, and it shows.
Costume designer Sheila White also does a great job with the authenticity of the costumes for both plays including the richness of 19th century Russia and both the elegance and the Modernist fashion sensibility that existed simultaneously in 1960s London.
At times riotously funny, this is one risk that should definitely pay off for the Arts Club.
Black Comedy (and The Marriage Proposal)
Arts Club Theatre Company
Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, 2750 Granville Street
Continues through October 11th, 2009
Struggling artist Brindsley wants to impress his fiancée’s visiting father, so he dim-wittedly breaks into a neighbour’s flat and “borrows” the fancy furniture. But just as the last antique is set in place, a fuse blows and the lights go out! A litany of unexpected guests and mistaken identities throw the evening into chaos—but the darkness also sheds hilarious light on everyone’s true character.
Visit http://www.artsclub.com for tickets and information.