Being willing to get up there and be awful on purpose takes courage and talent. Arena Theatre Director Brian Wagner's cast has both, and in return, the audience is free to laugh without embarrassment at the struggles of a rural English hamlet's stab at sci-fi melodrama.
If you enjoy the antics typical of BBC comedies on PBS - Monty Python, Keeping Up Appearances, Fawlty Towers, Are You Being Served? and the lot - then They Came From Mars, etc. is sure to be your cup of tea. Pompous balloons are begging to be burst, but everyone is a bit too polite to do more than pop off and carry on!
The play's long, long title is a bit of a warning about one of the greatest challenges for the cast and audience. Do you see how it does go on and on, my dear? Well, wordy ditherings are (how shall we put it?) rife in the script by David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin Jr. This is one of a whole series of plays by the duo. I suspect school drama teachers and community theatre troupes either love them or, like Nunsense and its sequels, would prefer to leave them.
Each play features the ladies of the Farndale Avenue Housing Estate (over on this side of the pond, we call them housing additions). The Townswomen's Guild provides the neighborhood's fairer sex an opportunity to learn new things and raise funds for charity. This includes putting on plays - and the more elaborate the better! Any women who has said "yes" to a homespun folly, revue, charity benefit or even coffeehouse will most likely relate to this play-within-a-play. Whatever can go wrong will, to good comic effect. Light and sound cues? Props not where they are expected to be? Scenery? Hah! The Farndale Avenue volunteers can only dream of smooth performances with nothing amiss.
Director Wagner has recruited five terrific local veteran actors to execute the hijinks. In the case of Becky Niccum's character Norah, that should be "high" jinks. A mix-up leaves Norah smashed on Valium and her slapstick, stream-of-consciousness mutterings are impossible to resist, invoking laughter early and often. Just as the circus clowns who are bumbling bums have to take extra classes at clown school, Niccum's Norah is full of physicality as she tries to climb through the jumbled set as either the housekeeper Mrs. T or even be upstanding as Roberta the Robot.
Suzan Moriarty's character, Mrs. Reece, is a bossy, over-confident woman who finds it impossible to ignore the audience, and thus both she and her play character Professor Einstein are constantly attempting to explain all the problems away. A respectable result is just not in the cards, Mrs. R. I particularly enjoyed the Einstein wig. Moriarty gives Phoebe a flavor of "she started dance lessons at age 3 and never quite got over the thrill."
Rebecca Larue Karcher, as Felicity playing Indesit the Martian and Mrs. Allsopp, starts out slowly. Her character is frustrated by the chaos developing on stage, but when Felicity steps forward as the Martian, complete with green batting helmet and what appear to be vestments, well, it's clear that there's no turning back now for prim and proper Felicity. By Act Two, having a pleasant tea on the Red Planet seems only natural.
Jen Poiry-Prough, as Thelma playing both the Allsopp children, Jimmy and Susan, manages to be goofy and obvious as Thelma-as-Jimmy and even more funny while vamping as Thelma-as-Susan. The stage directions call Thelma "a prima donna," and Poiry-Prough adds "sexy" when it comes time to play Susan Allsopp. Paul R. Faulkner as Gordon playing Rev. Allsopp takes bumbling cleric to heart, complete with crib notes to cover for not being able to remember his lines. This leads to a near disaster when Rev. Allsopp drops and scrambles his notes about some incident in Dingley Dell. Even the audience members who were resolutely only smiling, had to give in and laugh out loud as that bit got more and more ridiculous.
Stage manager Kathy Pelter takes a brief moment on stage with the ironing board prop. Last but certainly not least, Leslie Beauchamp's choreography jumps in to give the second act big numbers just enough additional silliness, in a dance number somewhat reminiscent of "Puttin' on the Ritz," to bring it all home.
After this summer's wackiness, the remainder of Arena's season appears to be a mix of humor and hope, with a thriller and a dark musical for good measure. Season tickets are on sale through the end of Aug. 20.
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