Those who have seen the classic screwball comedy My Man Godfrey, starring William Powell and Fort Wayne native Carole Lombard, will find some familiarity about all for One’s opening performance of their 26th season. Bentley, a modern take on that story, incorporates a few of those classic themes, but in a contemporary way.
Michael Wilhelm, who wrote one of all for One’s most popular plays, Turtle Soup, wanted to contribute another play to the afO repertoire. He began with one idea which, as often happens in the hands of someone creative, took a new and dynamic twist.
“I had gotten a discount DVD of My Man Godfrey and had never seen it before,” Wilhelm said. “I discovered it had never been adapted for the stage and thought, ‘Maybe I could do that.’ But when I sat down to write it, I realized it doesn’t work.
“Then I realized if I updated it and gave it a modern setting, it would. Some of those dated aspects, like debutante balls and gossip columns, could become reality TV shows and Twitter. And in the process, it becomes a story of forgiveness and redemption.”
Wilhelm worked carefully on the play for about four years, sharing his progress with all for One artistic director Lauren Nichols. While that first scene from My Man Godfrey serves as a good opening for Wilhelm’s new play, much of the rest comes from the mind of Wilhelm, tapping into both his sense of humor and his fertile imagination. What makes this production of Bentley different from his previous effort, Turtle Soup, is that this time Wilhelm is watching the rehearsals and the play’s evolution and progress from the sidelines rather than as the lead actor in its production.
“This experience has been great,” he says. “With Turtle Soup, I was in it and didn’t get the chance to sit back and watch it develop. Being in that position and watching it come to life is better than I thought it would be. It’s been very insightful because when you’re writing you see what you want to see. But then you hear the actors read it cold, they bring their own accents and inflections which really help to flesh it out. I suppose if you had a big ego and couldn’t let go of it, it might be hard to accept that, but I think it really brings it to life and helps to sharpen it.”
Nichols also thinks having Wilhelm experience his work strictly as a playwright rather than as an actor has helped the process.
“I think Michael deliberately wanted to write one that he couldn’t be in so he could have that experience of working on it in a more detached way and watching the process from the outside,” Nichols said. “He’s been able to watch as the actors embrace the characters and come up with comedic bits he hadn’t come up with.
“In fact, at one rehearsal, one of the actors said, ‘Am I the only one that thinks this line should be said here?’ And it was a perfect line that Michael hadn’t come up with, so we put it in the show, and it’s really funny. But I won’t tell you what the line is!”
Having last year celebrated all for One’s 25th season, the company launches its second quarter century with Bentley. But they have three more appealing plays to follow.
Deciding to make a holiday show a new tradition, all for One features the classic A Christmas Carol this year, but, just as was the case with Bentley, this story features a twist on the tale.
“It’s not a musical, but there’s quite a bit of music in it, as well as handbells, which requires some extra work in rehearsals,” Nichols said. “It’s actually a story of an Edwardian Era theater company who is staging a production of A Christmas Carol, and their props are dilapidated, and they’re losing actors. Their struggles provide a backstory to the production, so you’ll hear a character say, ‘We don’t have any chains? How can we have Marley with no chains?’”
Moving into early 2019, afO provides a romantic comedy just in time for Valentine’s Day, and it’s another play in perfect keeping with afO’s dedication to presenting classic literature and timely themes.
“Our next show is An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde,” says Nichols. “I think it has a lot more substance than The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s funny, witty madcap. An Ideal Husband is funny but also thought-provoking, and it looks at relationships and ethics.”
The season wraps up with The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, an award-winning children’s book by author Kate DiCamillo. Nichols says the beautiful story lends itself to minimal staging, perfect for their home at the ArtsLab in the Auer Center for Arts & Culture. Bringing all-ages stories like this to life, as afO did last season with The Secret Garden, is one of the things that all for One does best and is at the heart of its mission.
But first up, Bentley, which Wilhelm hopes will inspire laughs, but also thought.
“The message of Bentley is one of forgiveness and redemption,” Wilhelm said. “I just think that message is so vital in our culture right now. There’s so much anger and hate in our world that we really need to embrace forgiveness or we’ll just be consumed by the hate. I’m hoping people will laugh but will walk away with more, feeling like they may have learned something, too.”