Friday, May 7, 2010

The Dichotomy of Hay Fever in May

UWM’s Noel Coward Staging Is Cleverly Melodramatic in All The Right Places

By Russ Bickerstaff
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There’s something really, really refreshing and refreshingly dramatic about a production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever. I had the pleasure of seeing it for a third time last night. Directed by Rebecca Holderness, the UWM production compares favorably with Milwaukee Chamber and American Players Theatre productions I’ve seen of the comedy in the past.

The production is remarkably vivid with a detailed Kurt Sharp set and intricate costumes designed by Pamela J. Rehberg. While all the elements of design were top-notch, professional-quality, what was  really  impressive was how well integrated they were with Holdreness’ overall vision of the production. Coward’s comedy of bad manners plays a wealthy, ostentatious artistic family of four against the four relatibely normal guests they have invited to their home for the weekend. Holderness contrasts the family’s enchant for melodrama against the very real world it inhabits by fusing beautiful, symmetrical artistic theatre reality against a very lived-in, organic feel. Sharp’s set is solidly set in the mid-twenties.

There’s a feeling of perfection and balance about everything that has the kind of attention to detail that makes it all feel quite authentic, natural and organic. The cast playing the family brilliantly plays-up a sense of over-inflated drama that Holderness amplifies beautifully in overly dramatic blocking and intonation contrasted against very authentic emotions dwelling at the center of it all. During the play’s two intermissions, actors can be seen walking around in character , living out the very mundane aspects of the character’s lives which exist between the scenes, giving the production a very natural, lived-in feel. Scenes with multiple actors are brought to the stage with a delicate artistic flourish that contrasts against this. The contrast is quite subtly handled with a clever flourish.

Early on the family matriarch Judith (played with comically melodramatic poise by Toni Martin) is having something of a conflict with her grown children Sorel (Megan Kaminsky) and Simon (Max Hultquist.) At one point in the conflict, Simon and Sorel are sitting on a couch as Judith walks behind the couch they’re sitting at. It’s a brief, silent moment in a comic argument with very real emotion. Simon and Sorel cross their legs exactly the same way at exactly the same time. The production is filled with this kind of beautiful symmetry contrasted against very real emotion.

The cast assembled for the production works well enough as an ensemble that one would hardly notice that everyone’s much closer in age to each other than a traditional professional cast would have for a production of a family comedy. Any production with a cast this size is going to have some actors playing certain characters which have a stronger impact on certain members of the audience than others. Having seen three different productions of Hay Fever, I could probably get into nauseating specifics on each actor and how well they’re executing each of the characters in comparison to APT and Milwaukee Chamber productions, which would be an exercise in extreme silliness . . . in any case, here’s a quick look at a couple of the actors in this production who had outstanding performances in comparison to the other two productions . . .

Toni Martin as Judith Bliss—Judith is kind of at the dramatic center of the play—an aging actress in love with drama on and off the stage, the events of the play are largely done for Judith’s benefit. Martin’s genuine emotional center rests entirely in a fabricated comically dramatic comportment. Martin’s performance seems a bit more exaggerated than I’ve seen in previous productions, but it suits the character quite well. This would not have been the case had it not been for the fact that Martin is as good as she is at selling the emotional reality of the character beneath her exaggerated sense of drama.

Megan Kaminsky as Sorel Bliss
—Sorel is at odds with the family’s ostentation, which she sees as being quite rude. She wants to reform. Kaminsky draws comic intensity from the conflict that contrasts beautifully against Judith’s need for the drama. Drawn a bit into both the melodrama and the reality beyond it, the audience can safely look to Kaminsky as an ambassador of the two worlds. Her performance here draws the serious, critical end of Coward’s comedy into the production brilliantly. I don’t recall ever being this impressed with the character in previous productions.

Tommy Stevens as Richard Gretham—Stevens, who has done some interesting work with Youngblood in the recent past, plays Sorel’s guest for the weekend—a diplomat. Stevens is a great deal of fun as a man required to be professionally tactful at all times. The character has always come across a bit more awkward than necessary. Stevens looks and feels very natural in the role of the diplomat, which has the rather clever effect of making the awkwardness of the play rest largely in the hands of the Blisses, where it belongs.

UWM’s production of Hay Fever runs through May 9th the UWM Mainstage Theatre.

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