WEST VALLEY CITY — Black comedy unfurls in fine form on the West Valley Hale’s stage, with it’s latest production of Joseph Kesselring‘sArsenic and Old Lace. Set in the 1940’s Brooklyn, this story focuses on the “charitable” acts of two kindly old women, known by all for their selflessness and sweetness.However, there is the very macabre nature of their generosity. For years, Abby and Martha Brewster have been taking in old gentlemen and, in absolute kindness, hastening their deaths along with a mixture of wine, cyanide, strychnin,e and arsenic. It’s a secret well-kept until their nephew, Mortimer Brewster, discovers the latest victim tucked neatly in the window seat. His frantic discovery of the body disrupts his new engagement to the radiant Elaine Harper; all of Mortimer’s thoughts of marriage are pushed aside in favor of managing his aunts’ deathly secret. The solution? Blame the murder on brother Teddy Brewster, hoping his mental illness (in which he’s convinced he’s Theodore Roosevelt) will be inculpating enough to escape any real conviction. Schemes go awry, however, when Mortimer’s criminally insane brother Johathan returns to the Brewster homestead, bearing a new face at the hands of Doctor Einstein. He has his own body to bury, and a Brewster home to claim for his own use. Cue comedy.
I’ve been consistently impressed by the Hale’s transformative use of the West Valley space. The small stage felt massive, reflecting an interior of some grandeur and standing. The plush set (Kacey Udy) added to the feel of cozy wealth, perfectly capturing the same exuberant warmth in the Brewster sisters’ personalities. Richness in color scheme, complimented by an equally opalescent lighting design (Adam Flitton) created a truly beautiful stage. I loved the deatils in the set, such as the glass knicknacks and the bust of Shakespeare. The details of this set offered a scrumptious visual feast that satisfied through and through. A player piano provided fitting musical transitions, and sound design (Shane Steel) worked seamlessly into the action of the show. The cohesiveness of technical elements was seamless, and helped to support the script and actors.
Absolute potential for confusion exists in the diversity of characters’ backgrounds. Yet, I thought the overall effort blended them well. Costumes (Brooke Wilkins) showed the quirkiness of each character’s personality. I absolutely loved the gaudy splendour of Abby and Martha’s funeral gowns. It was so fun to see the women dressed in funeral finery, running around the house. Some of the costumes felt more caricatured than others, however. Jonathan Brewster’s costume, for example, created a posturing reminiscent of Frankenstein’s Monster. Makeup (Krissa Lent) again supported the various backgrounds of the characters and yet blended with the other technical elements in a subtle fashion.
The ensemble itself is noteworthy in the manner that they worked in unison and uplifted, rather than upstaged, each other. The understanding of comedic timing, of pace and dialogue created a snappy rapport onstage, and moved the plot along quite nicely. I appreciated the nuances of each character, yes, but I appreciated more how they worked to create a cohesive narrative on stage. Chris Brown and Melany Wilkins as Abby and Martha Brewster, respectively, performed with a synergy that they had me perfectly convinced that they were sisters. The utmost sincerity of their affection, combined with a Doctor Kevorkian-esque intent made for highly comedic theater, and I absolutely could not stop watching them. They interacted well with one another, and developed a truly lovely cadence. Even as merry murderesses, I felt the inclination to share a cup of tea with them. Brava.
Also commendable was Paul Cartwright; his Mortimer Brewster perfectly adept in the circumstances. The fretful energy, combined with all the cynicism of a critic, played to extremely great effect. His chemistry with Amy Addams Stocking as Elaine Harper sizzled on stage; the dynamic lent to credibility of a believable relationship, grounded enough to stand in the world of heightened comedy. Michael Hohl as Teddy Brewster absolutely stole every scene he was in. Hohl’s mannerisms created a rather convincing Teddy Roosevelt that exuded unending charm. Not quite so charming was Jonathan Brewster (Brandon Green), who had a gaunt sculptured face and a demeanor reminiscent of The Mighty Boosh’s Old Gregg. Green managed to elicit very creeping sensations; I feared his eerie and rather slimy demeanor. His chemistry with the truly lamentable Doctor Einstein (Matt Kohler) brought an incredibly fun dynamic to the stage, and I found myself excited for their scenes together.
I appreciated the director’s (Jennifer Parker Hohl) hand in this piece. Scenes flowed smoothly from one to another, and there was a definite momentum that gathered through each act. Because of Hohl’s direction there was almost a cinematic feel to the flow of the show. Hohl’s blocking always made it see for me to see the action on stage—not an easy task on the West Valley Hale’s theatre in the round stage. It was fun to look around the audience and see so many audience members enthralled by the action on stage, and laughter was rampant throughout the night.
Overall, I really quite enjoyed the Hale Centre Theatre’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace. Tightly knit technical elements, and a vibing cast brought strong energy to the stage. Grim humour really resonated with the audience, and there really was a fun element of dark farce. Humour, both physical and verbal, brings levels of enjoyment for viewers of all ages, and I would highly recommend this show to anyone seeking a night of solid comedy.