Created and Performed by Elevator Repair Service
Directed by John Collins
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
The Revelation of the Undertow of Wonder
“I can’t help but wish and feel as if there’s more to our lives, somewhere, in this moment. Than this concern for the whereabouts and well-adjustment of a devil. I’m bored to exhaustion. Devil, devil. Devil. Bringer of evil. Filler of vacuums, blah blah blah.” Dora
In a recent New York Times interview (September 4, 2015), playwright Sibyl Kempson affirms that “you don’t have to struggle to understand” her new play “Fondly, Collette Richland” currently playing at the New York Theatre Workshop. That affirmation is true, but that understanding comes only after one exits the theater and realizes that what transpires on the street is even more confusing than what plays out on the stage inside. Ms. Kempson’s text is dense and to claim it is not would be to discredit the sophistication of the script. There are “big impossible problems to contend with” in this world premiere and all of them are hauntingly delightful.
The structure of Sibyl Kempson’s new play is complex and innovative and quite different from any conventional dramatic arc. Stage directions, for example, are sometimes provided in song by Father Mumbles (what a great juxtaposition) played with a frightening religiosity by Mike Iveson. And the storyline – such as it is – is not linear. Watching “Fondly, Collette Richland” is quite like seeing all of Salvador Dali’s paintings at once through a kaleidoscope. With music and choreography. The fourth wall is broken and repaired and broken again and what is play and what is not comes under rigorous scrutiny throughout.
After a prologue offered by Collette Richland (April Matthis) herself, the action of the play begins in the modest kitchen of Mabrel Fitzhubert (Laurena Allan) and her hardworking husband Colonel “Fritz” Fitzhubert (Vin Knight). Think Willy and Linda Loman. To get a sense of the surreal nature of Ms. Kempson’s remarkable play, the Fitzhuberts have a Cat Butler (Susie Sokol) that is as adept at coughing up a fur ball as dragging the beverage cart to the table for serving after-dinner coffee. This Cat Butler wears red high heels and a bomber trooper aviator hat with flaps. After the unexpected arrival of Local Representative Wheatsun (Greig Sargeant), the action moves (through a small secret door) to the Grand Hotel Conclae Vista in the Alpen highlands. Seat belts fastened tightly yet?
It is here that the Fitzhuberts and the Local Representative are joined by an Alice in Wonderland cast of characters that include Mabel’s sister Winnifr’d Bexell (Kate Benson), her sister-in-law Dora Fitzhubert (April Matthis), Queen Patrice (Lucy Taylor), hotel concierge Hans Pierre (Mike Iveson), and others – notable among these are Sailor Boy (Ben Jalosa Williams) slayer of the pigdog whose milk is “A regional specialty. But it’s potent shtuff. It is said that it contains the gos-ship of the village. And prophecy, if there is any this year … they ushed to bring a cup of it to the ancient prieshtesh to find out all the portent.” “Through the Looking Glass” meets “Death of a Salesman” with fireworks. It is difficult to say more about the action of this quirky and challenging play except to say it must be seen.
“Fondly, Collette Richland’s” journey began with a reading of author Jane Bowles, probably “Two Serious Ladies” which contains the kind of “peculiar psychic arrangements” found in Ms. Kempson’s play. Ms. Bowles once said, “In order to work out my own little idea of salvation I really believe that it is necessary for me to live in some more tawdry place.” The setting of Ms. Kempson’s play is exactly that tawdry place where her delightful characters attempt to work out their own “little idea[s] of salvation” outwith the trappings of traditional religious constructs (Roman or otherwise). Sex-role stereotypes, sexual identity, even reality itself are explored in the Grande Hotel. Things are topsy-turvy at the Hotel and nothing is one-sided. The Krampus (Ben Jalosa Williams) represents this duality, the two sides of everything. Nothing is really what it seems to be. If you know about Santa, you should know about Kramps. What Santa giveth, the Kramps taketh away including the children. Better to allow the audience member to experience the Kramps without further comment.
More of life than we care to admit is simply scary and unbearable and there are “exquisite crises of consciousness” (Act Three) that require attention throughout life – and probably thereafter. “Fondly, Collette Richland,” bravely explores these crises with honesty and miraculous artistry. The play affirms that “Heaven and earth, and hell, united in the deepest part of the dark night, must once again split, and consciousness again be born.” Ultimately, Ms. Kempson’s striking new play is about the rebirth of consciousness. The ensemble cast under John Collins’ resplendent direction is equally skilled in giving their characters a densely dark authenticity that – at the same time – send chills up the spine and brings smiles to the observant.
But it is ultimately best not to overthink the piece or wonder about issues of provenance of thoughts or images or ideas. The audience member – as much a part of the ensemble as the members of the Elevator Repair Service – simply needs to allow the piece to flow over mind, body, and spirit and rejoice at the resurgence of wonder, the revelation of the undertow of wonder.