With seats at 90-degree angles to its playing area, watching a performance at the John Houseman Studio Theater calls to mind one of Max Bialystock's lines in The Producers: "You've all heard of theater-in-the-round? Well, I invented theater-in-the-square - nobody had a good seat!"
In the case of Alexa Kelly's production of the classic Feydeu farce A Flea In Her Ear, not only were the sight lines compromised - the production itself was hampered from the cramped imprecision forced by the unorthodox spatial arrangement, despite a gorgeous physical production and enough frantic energy to fuel three or four farces, including Noises Off.
Kelly adapted the 1910 French work herself, transplanting the action to 1940s New York. Her adaptation, while it had many occasions of genuine wit and laugh-out-loud hilarity, had one main problem (aside from the theatre space): in both her writing and her direction, she never followed through on enough of her ideas to give the work its own sense of itself. For instance, aside from time and location, not much else changed in the way of names, attitudes, or even cultural references (all still very French). Because everything was only partly reconceived, the result was a production that ended up straddling the gulf between wartime New York and Belle Époque Paris without being comfortable in either world. In addition, Kelly's uneven casting, in tandem with the imprecise, sometimes chaotic blocking, allowed the show to collapse into jumbles of screeching, flailing motion in the most farcical moments.
Nevertheless, there was enough convulsive giddiness on hand to keep the show entertaining. These moments were provided chiefly by the ever-glorious Natalie Wilder, an actress who, it seems, can do anything and everything, Joel Jeske, a terrific physical comedian with a superb sense of comic timing, the sublimely daffy Chris Daftsios, whose speed and accuracy with words and movement was simply amazing, and the deftly amusing Rick Coons, who stopped the show cold several times, most notably with his take on "To be or not to be...." Also contributing to the fun were Glenn B. Stoops as a Runyonesque hotel manager and the very game Amy Dickenson as his shrewish wife. (Her costume, make-up, and demeanor were a hilarious comment on a certain class of woman, American or French.)
As mentioned earlier, the physical production was gorgeous. Zhanna Gurvich's fabric-draped settings, done on a cleverly disguised shoestring, created sense of opulence that, along with Terry Leong's color-coordinated costumes and Bryan Keller's pristine, creamy lighting, gave the show the look and feel of a 1940s film extravaganza.
As she has proven in the past, Alexa Kelly just loves to take risks and is as fearless as a real-life Bialystock in her tenacity. And when her vision for A Flea In Her Ear was working, it worked with dizzying originality. If only she had followed her inspiration through every possible doorway to create a completely freewheeling adaptation that could stand on its own (potentially considerable) merits. Wouldn't that have been something!
(Also featuring Steve Abbruscato, James Cleveland, Michael Gilpin, Byron Loyd, Francesca Marrone, Linda Past, Paula J. Riley, and Elaina Wahl.)
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Copyright 2001 Doug DeVita