Hay Fever (Santa Rosa)
There’s a certain pleasure that comes from watching a cast so thoroughly enjoying themselves on stage that it raises one’s own enjoyment of a performance. I’m not talking about performers breaking the fourth wall or cracking each other up, I’m referring to such an absolute commitment to character and circumstance that you can actually feel the cast feed off each other’s energy. It helps to have the bon mots and the witty repartee of a Noël Coward script to begin with, as does the Roustabout Theatre Ensemble with their production of Hay Fever, running through March 5.
Part door-slamming farce, part comedy of manners, Coward’s tale focuses on the trials and tribulations of Judith Bliss (Leslie McCauley), soon-to-be unretired Grande Dame of the Theatre and her family – novelist husband David (Bill Davis) and forever-battling siblings Simon (Adam Blankenship) and Sorel (Arielle Mandelberg). Set in the Blisses’ English countryside home and under the watchful eye of tottering housemaid Clara (Sheila Lichirie), each family member has invited a guest to spend the weekend to the consternation of each other. Sorel has invited Richard Greatham (Rob Olmstead), an older, well-traveled man. Simon has invited Myra Arundel (Bonnie Jean Shelton), somewhat of a femme fatale. David has invited flapper Jackie Coryton (Lydia Revelos) to “observe” for his latest novel, and Judith has invited Sandy Tyrell (Jeff Graham), a hunk of meat and aspiring pugilist who’s been a fan of Judith’s stage work.
The weekend begins awkwardly as the guests arrive and goes downhill from there culminating in an after-dinner, black tie parlor game that sets the chaos in motion as flirtations develop into pairings-off, and not between those whom you would expect. The guests’ discomfort grows exponentially with Judith’s regular bouts of histrionics and Simon and Sorel’s burgeoning sibling rivalry leading to a classic Coward “escape” scene.
Written over 90 years ago, (and apparently in three days), Coward’s play survives for one simple reason. It’s funny. The play begins. Funny things happen, then funnier things happen. The play ends. Its characters are well-drawn caricatures. There’s no subtext. There’s no deeper meaning to be found. Its sole purpose is to amuse, and it succeeds swimmingly.
Leslie McCauley, herself returning to the stage after a 20-year hiatus, has a field day as Judith Bliss. What better way to warm up the acting chops than to undertake a character whose life is spent overacting? McCauley’s well-cured ham of an actress is delicious. I particularly liked her by-play with Rob Olmstead’s somewhat milquetoast Richard, whose diplomatic reserve is soon under attack by Judith’s intoxicating “charm”.
Director Clark Houston Lewis gets each cast member to bring a clearly defined, exaggerated character to life and yet keeps them just this side of going too far over the top. All do right by Coward’s dialogue, with an assist to dialect coach Jessica Berman for her work in getting the cast to deliver said dialogue in the clipped, stylised manner we’ve come to expect from such characters. The cast is uniformly excellent, but I found myself particularly amused by Jeff Graham’s deer-in-headlights character and by the all-too-familiar bickering and pouting of Blankenship and Mandelberg’s spoiled siblings. Also, take note of the cast’s physicality as they romp around Set Designer Russ Wigglesworth’s playful set.
Chock full of memorable dialogue (“She uses sex like some sort of shrimping net.”) and delivered by a cast firing on all cylinders, the Roustabout Theatre Ensemble production of Hay Fever provides the audience watching it with at least as much fun as the Ensemble appears to be having performing it – which is to say, a lot.
Noël Coward’s Hay Fever
Presented by the Roustabout Theater Ensemble
through March 5
Sat @ 8pm, Sun @ 3pm
Luther Burbank Center for the Arts
50 Mark West Springs Rd
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Photo courtesy of Roustabout Theater