By Liz Nicholls, .ca
The pith helmet has returned to Edmonton. And with it, playwright Stewart Lemoine’s invitation, in a well-travelled 1997 comedy both charming and riotous, to have an exotic, liberating adventure in the theatre, along with its three characters.
Pith!, named for both the adventure headgear and “the heart of the matter,” was last onstage here more than a decade ago. And if you’ve forgotten how irresistible it can be to see comedy fashioned in both broad and minimalist strokes, revelling in the make-believe of theatre, get yourself to the Varscona for a re-discovery.
The fun of Pith! is that it’s stage-managed right in front of you. It’s audacious that way. And its theatrical means cut directly to the conjuring, transforming power of the imagination, and deliberately bypass a big set and special lighting. The stage is bare, except for three actors, four chairs, a rug, a phonograph (and the delish period costumes of Leona Brausen and occasionally the voice of legendary soprano Rosa Ponselle, who gets a credit in the program). That bare stage actually is the premise of Pith!, and an expansive and fulsome one at that as it turns out.
The instigator is a vagabond seaman Jack Vail (Andrew MacDonald) who finds himself in Providence, R.I. in 1931. “You’ve heard of Jack who was every inch a sailor. Well that’s not me,” he tells us at the outset. He’s starting his “providential existence” in the local Presbyterian church, as he puts it wryly in the cadence of the period. MacDonald-Smith, reprising his role in the 2012 Pith! revival, negotiates the graceful circumlocutions and witticisms of Lemoine’s language with breezy skill.
Jack stays for the Sunday pie social. That’s how he meets Nancy Kimble (Jana O’Connor), the perky paid companion of one Mrs. Virginia Tilford (Kristin Johnston), dissolving in tears over her slice of bumbleberry pie. The formidably encased Mrs. Tilford has lived a gloomy half-life for the last 10 years, imprisoned not by widowhood but by the meagre hope that her vanished husband might still be alive. Uncertainty is sucking the life out of her, and it’s not doing much for Nancy’s job either.
“I can be pithy when the occasion demands,” says Jack. He undertakes the rescue of the adamantine Mrs. Tilford from the prison of her own making — by improvising for her, in her own living room, a wild life-restoring adventure into the South American jungle, where her husband has disappeared.
He creates a kind of theatre for Virginia and Nancy by re-arranging the furniture, and playing every outrageously accented character they meet on a route that takes them by land, sea, and river: sleazy Southern businessman, oily Russian gigolo, irritating Swedish geologist among them…. MacDonald-Smith, an expert like his cast-mates in Lemoine’s intricately articulate ‘30s idiom, has a fine time with this outrageous gallery via instant transformations in accent, body language, facial adjustment.
Ah, and the laughter starts with very funny physical acrobatics involved in his introductory improv gambit . He claims to be a government adjustor who’s come to the door to adjust the furniture, on behalf of the ions (“the commercial travellers of the particulate world”) whizzing through the room, Yup, go bold or go home. Even Nancy, a delightful creation in O’Connor’s performance, eager to say yes to every suggestion as a supporting player, is taken aback, awestruck by the sheer brazen wackiness of the invention.
There’s a double question in this. Will the resolutely skeptical Mrs. Tilford buy in? Johnston, a relative Teatro newcomer who has a way like her two stage companions with Lemoine’s intricate syntax, delivers a withering glare that could congeal olive oil at 100 paces. Will we the audience buy in?
The fun of Pith! is that we do, Mrs. Tilford, Nancy, and us. Mrs. Tilford, a test case for the power of the imagination, not only joins in, the only way to travel in imaginary adventures, she takes charge of the fantasy, ups the ante at crucial points, and escalates the comic scramble. The nimble Jack is at the service, speaking theatrically, of his own invention.
It’s a strange and sparkly sort of comedy that tests its own theatrical premise over and over. I doubt that Rosa Ponselle, in her illustrious career, has ever shared the stage with high-speed pratfall comedy and a script with a droll dry wit of its own, an original combination. “Cry all you want; who’s to notice out here in the rain forest?”
“I’m inclined to want to get to the heart of things quickly,” says Jack early in Pith!. At heart, in these isolating times, this is a comedy that’s all about unlocking the world, sadness and all, and leaving the key with us. It’s a good feeling.
Theatre: Teatro Live!
Written and directed by: Stewart Lemoine
Starring: Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Kristin Johnston, Jana O’Connor
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: through Feb. 25