Don’t Drink the Water (Healdsburg)
When one thinks of the works of Woody Allen, one usually doesn’t think of the stage. The prolific filmmaker (writer and/or director of 72 films and still going strong) has also written an occasional play over his 50+ year career. The Raven Players are presenting Allen’s “Don’t Drink the Water” – his first and most successful play – now through February 16th at the Raven Performing Arts Theater in Healdsburg.
An American Embassy in an unnamed Eastern European country finds itself the center of an international incident when a family of tourists takes refuge after being accused of espionage. Walter and Marion Hollander (Matthew and Shelly Proschold) and their vivacious soon-to-be-betrothed daughter Susan (Mercedes Murphy) are visiting from New Jersey when Walter innocently snaps some pictures of missiles and things and find themselves chased into the safety of the embassy by Commissar Krojak (Bonnie Jean Shelton). Unfortunately for the Hollanders, the Embassy is being run by Axel Magee (Nicholas Augusta,) the inept son of the current Ambassador (Arte L. Whyte). Things get more distressing for the Hollanders when they’re told that the last person to take refuge in the Embassy, a priest (Rob Olmsted) has been there for about six years. Axel, who holds some sort of State Department record for assignments lasting two weeks or less, keeps making the situation worse before figuring out a way to get the Hollanders home while, of course, falling in love with their daughter.
Director Jeremy Boucher admits in his program notes that it was challenging to stage a play that’s humor and relevancy is somewhat dated (it originally opened in 1966) and whose references might leave a younger audience a bit perplexed (What the heck is an Iron Curtain?) He seems to have tried to compensate for this by ramping up the physical comedy and having the actors play their characters as broadly as possible. Sometimes it works (Shelton’s Krojack , who seems to have walked in straight from a Bullwinkle cartoon) and sometimes it doesn’t (Doug Vanderpools’ Sultan of Bashir, who seems to have walked in straight from an episode of “Duck Dynasty”.)
The Proscholds, last seen on stage at the Raven in “A Streetcar Named Desire”, get to exercise their comedic chops here. While they generate most of the play’s laughs, I wondered if those laughs could have been delivered in a less constantly-bellowing manner. (Hey, I’m from New Jersey. Believe me, I get it.) The rule that “loud = funny” was put to the test over the show’s two hour and twenty minute running time, and I think there’s a case to be made that the “less = more” tenet might be better applied here as well.
Probably the least successful aspect of this show was the romantic subplot. Granted, this play was written early in Allen’s career and he has come a long way in character development, but Mr. Augusta wasn’t particularly believable as either the Ambassador’s son or as the romantic lead. This had nothing to do with the obvious. (A note should be made here to recognize the Raven Players commitment to colorblind and gender-neutral casting.) While Axel may very well be the “calm center” of the chaotic storm going on around him, I do believe the character is more dynamic than portrayed. At the very least, he should have given Susan a reason to break her engagement and fall in love with him. I didn’t see it.
What I did see was a capable cast of supporting players adding to the show’s merriment. Matt Farrell delivers as a sniveling diplomatic bureaucrat jealous of Axel’s authority, and the aforementioned Shelton scores as the play’s “Natasha Fatale”. The heart and soul of this production, however, is provided by Rob Olmsted. Olmsted’s priest/amateur magician Father Drobney basically serves as the play’s narrator and was clearly an audience favorite. While sounding suspiciously like comedian Yakoff Smirnoff, Olmstead makes the character his own and has some wonderful moments of physical comedy. Apparently, Mr. Olmstead has been away from the stage for a long time. He should stick around.
The opening night audience laughed throughout, and you should too, though a wee bit of knowledge of Cold War history and an appreciation of the usual community theater challenges (limited costume budgets, the ability to forgive ever-changing, oddly-delivered accents…) might help.
Don’t Drink the Water
A Raven Players Production
January 31st through February 16th
Evenings Fri, Sat @ 8pm Matinee Sun@ 2pm
Thurs Feb 6th @ 8pm – Value Night
Raven Performing Arts Theater
115 North Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Photos by Ray Mabry Photography