Monday, May 28, 2012

Spoleto: A weekend in the country with Coward

CHARLESTON -- Maybe all the world's a stage. But the Bliss family has all the theatrical arena it needs in its own home. 

The matriarch, Judith, has retired from her acting career, so now she has to content herself with strutting and fretting across the drawing room. Her drama-queen urges have seeped into the rest of the family: husband David, a novelist whose commercial success has installed them in a country manor; son Simon, a would-be artist whose idea of dressing for dinner involving donning a matador jacket; and daughter Sorel, a man-magnet who's clear-eyed enough to see that everyone they know thinks the family is bizarre. 

Noel Coward takes us for a weekend at their home in "Hay Fever," he sendup of the actors and bohemians he must've know by the boatloads during his decades as a globe-trotting playwright, actor and bon vivant. 

Another of Coward's comedies, "Present Laughter," had a sellout run at the Spoleto Festival in 2010, when the Gate Theatre -- a longtime favorite here -- came over from Ireland with it. Now the Gate is back with "Hay Fever," which is still wry and high-spirited nearly 90 years after its premiere. Ego, exaggeration and other foibles of the self-consciously artistic haven't disappeared in the meantime, have they? 

In "Present Laughter," Coward has his fun by letting the audience in on a matinee idol's life behind the scenes. "Hay Fever" is a collision between two worlds: the over-the-top Blisses versus a quartet of normal, or relatively normal, houseguests. 

When we meet the Blisses, they're at home by themselves, and they're chafing at it. Judith is even threatening to return to the stage -- because she's appalled that audiences are not clamoring for it. But such worries are forgotten when the Blisses discover that each of them, unbeknownst to the others, has invited a guest -- actually an admirer -- to come for the weekend. 

"Hay Fever" isn't exactly a play within a play. It's more of an interactive theater experience within a play, and the houseguests are on the receiving end. Coward first creates a series of social train wrecks as the visitors arrive and encounter the full-force family. Then he turns the Blisses and their hothouse personas loose on their startled, susceptible domestic audience. By Act 2, the results are even surprising the Blisses.

The Gate's cast carries off a neat trick: playing over-the-top characters while still keeping a light touch. 

Ingrid Craigie shows that Judith always has her creaky thespian skills at her fingertips. One of the most delicious moments is watching social challenged guest Richard -- who, as played by Mark O'Halloran, has all the easy affability of a paper clip -- fall under Judith's heavy-handed spell. 

Stephen Brennan, as the Bliss patriarch, lets you see the moment David switches on the charm with a female guests. When David lapses into second-rate-novelist lingo, Brennan relishes the floridness of telling the woman in his sights that she's "so tall, so magnificent, so (pause) tawny." 

The other tete-a-tetes are just as juicy. Director Patrick Mason and his cast also deliver some set-piece gems. When the shell-shocked houseguest find their way one at a time to the breakfast buffet, their states of mind emerge in the way they eat. And when one of them gets the hiccups, the ensuing scene is one that we've all played -- but never this well. 

Even with detours like that, the opening performance didn't sag. Mason made the first encounters just cringe-worthy enough that the antics could gain speed from there. The cast's gleefulness took care of the rest.