In CAT’s production of ‘Moon Over Buffalo’ the farce is sparse
Whoever said “Dying is easy, but comedy is hard,” was certainly referring to farce. Farce is defined by Meriam-Webster as “a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations.”
Already you can see the degree of difficulty. To be able to go over the top and still seem credible and honest requires a delicate balance from talented craftsmen.
Ken Ludwig’s Moon Over Buffalo falls right in line with the genre. Not as polished or as interesting as Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor, Buffalo has numerous similarities: period time-frame, Northeastern city, drinking-and-womanizing male star, justifiably jealous wife, young people desperately trying to keep things together, important person(s) in the audience, at least one character who’s passed out and is believed missing, non-actors forced to go onstage, etc.
The plot of this play is not important to repeat. It’s too convoluted for print and would take up the next six paragraphs. Suffice it to say it involves an acting troupe playing Buffalo, miscommunication, misidentification, randy infidelities, people furiously coming in and out of doors, a great deal of alcohol and the great movie director Frank Capra.
It is not the cleverest of scripts but seems to get a lot of play in the regional theaters as it is light and brisk and peppered with sex jokes, much like watching a situation comedy at home.
For farce to work well the directing must be inventive. Choreographing the slap stick commotion fluidly while simultaneously keeping the focus on the unlikely story are critical. The actors must be up to the physical task, create interesting believable characters out of the crude outlines drawn for them as well as have critical comedic timing skills to keep pace with the witty wordplay.
The production at CAT is fine. The pace is brisk and the sex jokes leave the audience hysterical. Certainly that has to be a satisfying goal.
It’s just not very good farce. It satisfies the local audience because there are familiar faces in amusing sit-com style situations. So of course they go ballistic over the staging of two men seeming to perform buggery. Hilarious. So was Three’s Company.
For me, if you want to watch great farce, look at Monty Python. Why do the English do it so much better? For one, Ken Ludwig writes plays that are geared to American tastes. Broad and dumbed down.
My major criticism of this production is that there are too many people involved who have no experience in playing farce. From the director on down.
There is good news. Some very talented actors have a natural ability for farce or long studied techniques to pull this material off.
The splendid Mollie Ort gave us a very funny hard-of-hearing grandmother, nuanced and comfortable in her own skin, finessing every punchline like a stand-up comic. Kathy Northrop Parker has a wonderful booming voice and a larger than life vitality that works for this character and makes bearable what I thought were some very ridiculous lines.
Aza Raine, for me, succeeds the best at this genre, even though his part was relatively small. Limber as a frog (credit Kipling), Mr. Raine uses his physicality to define Howard, the nerdy fiancé to Rosalind, the former ingénue of the troupe. He hops, jumps, pratfalls and rolls around the floor with panache. He has the great natural ability to be awkward and endearing at the same time, as well as possessing instinctual timing and a knowing look that allows him to metaphorically wink at the audience without being cheesy. He improves every scene he is in.
Meg Carnahan is also a delight. Bright and cheerful and more than a little adorable, she starts off a little harsh but then again she has to scream at the deaf Ms. Ort for a good five minutes. As the play progresses Ms. Carnahan shows her own depth of skill for improving ridiculous dialogue and always moving through the set with grace and class. She is really the sane anchor of this mad show.
Thomas Eichler plays the lead actor, George. The actor who plays George, in particular, must be able to deliver a highly physical performance; George engages in a mock fencing match with Charlotte, his wife, a wrestling match with Howard, and a stunt fall into the orchestra pit, most of it while incredibly drunk. A very tall order. Mr. Eichler is a veteran of Richmond stages and has an ease about him that is very affecting. I thought his scenes with Ms. Parker very likable. I also admired their simple swordplay. Not expert fencing by any means but passable in context of such an acting troupe. I was less convinced of his drunkenness which lasts the bulk of the play. Stage drunkenness requires subtlety and I thought his physicalization and vocalization very broad. I also thought that he mistimed some of his jokes. I don’t think he was helped much by his director.
All problems are director problems. Captain of the ship and all that. This is a first time directing assignment for Lauren Whitley. I wonder whether she was mentored as an assistant director before this assignment. In my opinion, this material is much too difficult for an untrained director.
First the good news. The chaos was very well staged. I thought she kept the bare bones plot in focus. Bravo on those points!
I’ve already spoken to some acting issues that were not resolved. Most critical was poor staging of intimate acting moments and non-chaotic crowd control. New directors move their actors without purpose. She chose a spare set (two sofas) that was barely used so actors roamed, sometimes aimlessly, or worse, stood still (usually center stage) during dialogue. There were traffic jams, clumped groups of people, actors placed behind another producing upstaging and sight issues.
A director is also the master of the elements. Set, scenery, lights and sound.
The set was notable for one feature. The many doors the characters are required to go in and out of with impeccable timing all worked perfectly. They all opened and closed on time and without fail. This may seem like a small point but I have been in and seen enough plays with badly constructed doors that swing open while a scene is in progress to appreciate this construction success.
Unfortunately the doors were constructed around a boring set. Solidly built but uninteresting to look at. I will credit the set designers Kent Walker and Cody Clarke as well as the director, Ms. Whitley for the wall hangings, beautiful period pictures of actors and programs of shows ostensibly staged at that Buffalo Theatre in the years prior to 1953. Very authentic but not very well lit.
The scenic transitions into and out of the “Private Lives” set (the play the troupe is doing), was extremely long and cumbersome and unnecessary.
When George is supposed to drunkenly fall into the pit, some below-stage extension was opened but the fall itself was not staged. It happens suggestively in a blackout. Maybe a good safety choice for an older actor or an ill equipped theater space, but disappointing nevertheless.
The lighting design by Alan Armstrong was hampered by the flat set and the vertical walls where all the pictures were hung. No angles to bounce light off of.
The costume design created by Alison Eichler was not always true to period but very well done as to character costumes. The Cyrano outfit, Rosalind’s dress, and the Patton costume, all splendid.
Moon Over Buffalo is an average farce which can be elevated by professional treatment. Several actors save this production from tedium. Their efforts alone make the production worth seeing.
Moon Over Buffalo runs now through APR 2 2016 at at the CAT Theatre. You can pick up tickets here.
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