“Gee if I hadn’t seen you, I wouldn’t have recognized you.”
For any fan of Laurel and Hardy, that is just one of many lines that can still bring a nostalgic laugh — funny now as always. Standing before us are a pair of gents that are eerily duplicates in so many ways of the two who began their crazy antics on films before sound and continued even into the early days of television. There is Ollie twisting his tie, Stan with his rubbery face, and the two doing their derby switches followed by the inevitable pile-up on the floor of so many twisted arms and legs that it is hard to believe each only has two of each in the mash-up. Just minutes into Hats Off to Laurel and Hardy — a 2013 play by Philip Hutchinson that has crossed many international borders performing to sell-out audiences — and already the audience is guffawing in laughter and shaking their heads in adoration in ways audiences have for a century.
Tony Carpenter as Stan Laurel and Philip Hutchinson as Oliver Hardy recreate the life stories of these two partners attached as one entity to each other, on and off stage. We hear of their shaky beginnings, meteoric rise to international fame, marriages successful and marriages disastrous, stardom on stages and on screen, their slow declines in health and well-being, and their remarkable abilities to rise as a combined Phoenix time and again up until the very end. But better yet, the two actors recreate both on live stage and in projected film clips a number of the pairs’ most famous skits, complete with the gestures and grimaces that still bring smiles, chuckles, and outright laughter whether being seen for the first or the hundredth time. Hats off to Messieurs Carpenter and Hutchinson for a fabulous Hats Off to Laurel and Hardy.
Three young women, ranging in age 17 to 22, feel trapped in the walls they have each built around themselves. Their prospects for breaking out are not clear to them or to us as we begin to see glimpses of their lives on a stage defined by three, rather claustrophobic spaces that touch but are in many ways, worlds apart. Isla Cowan’s new play, These Walls, is a gripping story of how one event gives them each a possible crack into a future that may not be as bounded by personal expectations and self-defined boundaries as are their present realities.
Imogen Osborne is Chrissy, always fearing her aging (at 22?) body is losing the beauty she believes so defines who she really is. As a dancer in a club, she too often draws the attention of men who only see a possible hook-up versus an intelligent woman who might be fun and interesting to get to know. Ms. Osborne brings an intensity that particularly shows in eyes that pop with feeling and expression. She exudes a frustration that “people look at me and just see hot,” even as she continues to sit in front of a mirror and worries about creeping wrinkles that only she can see.
Serious in tone, organized to a ‘t,’ but full of smiles and perk when put in front of a classroom for academic performance, Eden (Becky Shepardson) is full of expectations that she and her parents and everyone who knows her have of her that she will always be perfect in whatever she chooses to do or pursue. Her fear of failure is also the biggest question she struggles to answer. “Can’t I just make one mistake?”
Caught in a relationship where she feels both intense hate and total love, where “nothing changes except at the same time, everything does,” Althea is perhaps the saddest of the three women imprisoned in walls invisible to everyone but themselves. Cecily Pierce gives a compelling, often heart-breaking performance of a pensive, tense, worried-looking woman in a relationship that seems to offer her nothing but pain — except for surprise kisses that always seem to cause her to forget that pain and to love him again. Nothing changes.
But something does change for each of these women whose lives begin to intertwine in much the way their monologues often do with one’s interrupted sentence abruptly leading to another’s spoken thought. The result is a set of three stories becoming one in order to allow three women to figure out what they need to do to escape These Walls.
Rating: 4 E
The Recovery Version
Ilona Munro (Book and Lyrics); Paul Hornby-Battrick & Chaz Stewart (Music)
Three generations of dads and sons gather at the home of oldest among them, Jonny, to celebrate the coming of the new year. And while Jonny is eager to call upon many old traditions to celebrate Hogmanay in the Highlands of Scotland (from foods to decorations to the command of each person to write and share an original song or poem for the new year), there is not much tradition among the three of them for spending time together.
Jonny is seeing his twelve-year-old grandson, Jack, for the first time since the boy was two. His son John is hosting with great reluctance the son (Jack) he shares with his ex, bringing the boy to his own father’s house that he rarely visits any more. In the meantime, good friend Fisher is coming in and out, trying to keep the spirits of the strained reunion up as he too gets drawn into Jonny’s desire to have a Scottish New Year rich in traditions that might just heal the many rifts and resentments among this mixed-generation family.
Ilona Munro’s The Recovery Version is a mixture of family dysfunction that is both funny and sad, of relationships showing both some promise of genuine renewal and some serious possibility of final blow-up, and of traditions that both have the promise to bind as well as the power to divide. Through the music of Paul Hornby-Battrick and Chaz Stewart, new songs rich in Scottish Highlands sound interject themselves to remind the gathered family and their friend of feelings forgotten, of feelings perhaps never experienced, and maybe of feelings now desired.
Performances among the principals are overall excellent enough (George Carson as Jonny, Paul Hernaes Barnes as John, and Glen Alexander as Fisher), but it is the young Holly Baldwin as Jack who particularly leaves a memorable mark. She captures fully the initial sullenness so predictable in a boy twelve who has once again been largely ignored by a dad he rarely sees and handed off to a grandfather he hardly (actually does not) know. But this young Jack blossoms in every dimension as he and Jonny form a special relationship that surprises them both, and the breadth and depth of the transformation in Jack is a joy to behold.
A son returns home to claim his deceased Italian dad’s shop known for its crisply fried potatoes, fish, and chicken. He finds a shop not much better than a decaying dump; and he also begins to find mysteries of a business that has been long failing even as its walls are full of faithful customers who thought of his dad as family. As he rummages through boxes in preparation for a sale of the property, he begins a journey through memories of voices past and of moments long forgotten but now as real as if they were occurring in the present. Lorenzo Novani writes and performs a tale, Cracked Tiles, of a son’s searching for a truth about a father now dead but whose lingering clues and messages add up to a mystery the son is compelled to solve, no matter the answer.
Recreating characters of the old neighborhood as well as of a family now all gone, Mr. Novani is a master of mixed voices and persona. An uncle stoops with hunched back and speaks out of a mouth that is long, thin line across his old face. A young boy — in fact himself — wanders around the store, sitting on mounds of potatoes as if king for a day. A customer shuffles in with an accent so heavy that understanding is near impossible. These and many more memories flood the decaying walls of the store as the son wanders through signs of a truth he still seeks.
Lorenzo Novanti’s tale and its delivery, his simple but effective set, and the lighting both stark and shadowy all add up to a delicious offering that builds in its intrigue. The final discovery and resolution of his search, however, is a bit subtle (at least for this reviewer and for several fellow attendees I spoke to afterwards). One clue is quickly passed by in one of the stories — a clue that perhaps could be given a bit more time and attention. Remembering that clue is essential in fully understanding the son’s final and emotional resolve. (Luckily, I did get to visit with the playwright/performer afterwards and walked away with the mystery now solved for me, too.)
Even the best of intentions about a subject as universally important as an aging parent’s dementia cannot help a piece that is highly disjointed, full of over-done and frantic theatrics, and scattered with symbols that really do not make a lot of sense. Rob Gaetano’s My Pet, My Love may be his attempt to bring to greater understanding of his own mother’s long and sad demise; but neither his script nor unfortunately his interpretation is yet ready to bring this new work to a staged performance. Had the audience been larger than the three of us, I can assure you I would have been tempted to slip out long before the very long hour it took for the piece to conclude.
Four New Yorkers living parallel lives are temporarily lost and roaming rather aimlessly in a search whose goals are still being defined by each. Told only through the lyrics and music of Adam Gwon, Ordinary Days is a story where an afternoon at the Met can go in one of two ways: boring or life-changing. The answer lies in how much each person is willing to break out of old patterns and risk moving into territories not yet fully surveyed.
Warren is an artist who mostly now only hands out flyers on the streets of the Big Apple while apartment sitting for a real artist. A bit dorky in his red glasses and tight-fitting, grey, knit cap, Warren (Neil Cameron) sings with a voice often reminiscent of a boy much younger in numbers like “Life Story,” which details his exasperation of where he now finds himself as a wanna-be artist. Deb (Nora Perone) is a student in grad school who sings “Don’t Wanna Be Here” in a voice that sometimes spreads the sung tones a bit too thin but who overall is terrific in conveying the fear and frustration of a young woman who loses all her thesis notes for a dissertation she is not sure she wants to write. The two have a shaky beginning after he finds her thesis notes on a bus seat and tries to use it as a way to spend time with her. Two lost souls look for ways to help each other while having greater issues how to help themselves.
Claire and Jason are at a juncture point in their relationship where deciding to live together and move into the same apartment is igniting lots of other issues to-now probably ignored. As Claire, Kirby Hughes tries to clean out a closet to make room for Jason but then has second thoughts, singing in a voice crystal clear and with outstanding volume control, “I’m gonna let things go back where they were.”
Her boyfriend (or maybe not) Jason (Alistair Frederick) also brings outstanding vocal abilities to his part, singing in a voice that is convincing and emotionally sound over a wide range on the musical scale, “All my favorite places are places I have never been … I have not found a way into her heart … one of my favorite places I’ve never been.”
While the song lyrics at times become a bit wordy bordering on over-dose, over all the songs do convey a series of four, interlocking stories that build to a climax that is fun and heart-warming. Jen Coles does a good job in directing the flow of over twenty songs, most defining its own new scene and singer. Full ensemble numbers like “Saturday at the Met” and “Rooftop Duet/Falling” are engaging and often exciting as directed by musical director Rowland Brache. In the end, the one hour, ten minute musical flies by with a set of stories that prove that Ordinary Days” is not at all simply ordinary.
Rating: 4 E
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Theatre Eddys reviews performances throughout the greater San Francisco Bay Area.
Theatre Critic for the Greater San Francisco Bay Area, writing 150+ reviews annually for Theatre Eddys and Talkin' Broadway (San Jose/Silicon Valley). Read More