One takes a mighty risk when one attempts Arthur Kopit's Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad, a frantic farce that mocks the Theater of the Absurd even as it honors that form's peculiar rhythms and deeply weird possibilities.
Fortunately for local theatergoers, iTheatre Collaborative is not above taking risks and, even better for us, has made a success of its new production of this seldom seen, rather complicated comedy.
Set in a hotel room in 1950s Havana, Oh Dad introduces Madame Rosepettle, a demented American widow traveling in the company of her son, a piranha, a pair of carnivorous plants, and the taxidermied body of her late husband. The son, Jonathan, is a super-dork who's never allowed out of the hotel and who spies on Rosalie, a tarty governess of whom Madame Rosepettle doesn't approve. A new suitor for Madame, a near-sexual experience with the local trollop, and a near-fatal run-in with one of the creepy plants later, and we've had a good long laugh at what farce used to be.
The production's many carefully choreographed, almost balletic sequences are so well thought out by director Charles St. Clair that they appear to have been rehearsed for months. St. Clair has found for his cast the perfect tempo and tone, so hard to capture in farce, in each of the show's increasingly oddball scenes. Thus, when one of the giant plants comes suddenly to life and attacks Jonathan in Act Two, or when doors begin swinging open simply because someone has pointed at them, it all makes sense, because St. Clair has remained true to the play's subtitle, "a pseudoclassical tragifarce in a bastard French tradition," by setting up each absurdity so expertly from the start.
At points, the production appears to be little more than an excuse for Shannon Whirry to play Madame Rosepettle, which she does so completely that I was unable to find in this creation the woman I've previously seen playing a whiny mother (in Frozen) or the great stage actress Joan Plowright (in Orson's Shadow). As Madame, Whirry appears to be channeling both silent-era Gloria Swanson and that infamous line drawing of Cruella De Vil. She paces the stage like a loaded lynx, bugging out her eyes and bellowing Kopit's crazy dialogue with wild aplomb; her performance is so grand and beguiling that even when she's not on stage, the memory of her presence lingers. The only thing I liked more than Whirry's performance was the credit in the playbill that read, "Robert X. Planet: Wigs."
I was less enamored of Mike Traylor's too-frantic take on Madame's demented son, although the color-blind casting (the African-American actor plays the whole evening in whiteface, which Whirry is seen carefully touching up with a powder puff during their first entrance together) was a nice touch. Bruce Alvin was flawless as Mme. Rosepettle's fey suitor, Commodore Roseabove; and I can't not mention Michael H. Waid's skillful costume design, which combines equal parts comedy and high fashion to remind us that we are, as one character announces early on, "not in Havana!"
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