American Century Theater Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So SadBy Bob Ashby • Mar 27th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
American Century Theater: (Info) (Web)
Gunston Arts Center, Arlington, VA
Through April 12th
1:40, without intermission
$35-$40/$32-$37 Senior, Student, Military
Reviewed March 23rd, 2014
In The American Century Theater (TACT) audience guide for Arthur Kopit’s 1960 Oh Dad…, Artistic Director Jack Marshall lists 23 reasons why otherwise interesting plays drop out of sight and end up being produced by TACT. Oh Dad… scores in eight of Marshall’s 23 categories (e.g., unfortunate titles, a bias against older plays, bad movie versions, difficult technical challenges). TACT’s production, capably directed by Tyler Herman, is an inspired bit of theatrical archeology, bringing strong acting and excellent production values to a show that has lost none of its weirdness in the intervening 54 years.
The weirdness inheres in the principal characters: Madame Rosepettle (Robin Reck), a domineering monster of a mother; Jonathan (Tony Strowd), her cowed and hapless son; and Rosalie (Emily Erin), a seeming ingénue turning ravenous. And yes, dad — or at least a taxidermist’s preservation of his remains — does hang in the closet, though, truth to tell, none of the characters appear to feel particularly sad about it. It’s just part of the abnormal normal of the Rosepettle world.
TACT holds opening the house until a relatively brief time before the performance. Then the five members of the chatty bellboy crew usher patrons to their seats. The bellboys work for the Hotel Libre in post-revolutionary but pre-embargo Havana. Madame Rosepettle is their guest from hell, peremptorily ordering them about as they bring her varied belongings into the suite. There are suitcases to be sure, but most travelers to Caribbean destinations do not arrive with a pair of Venus Fly Traps who play guitar and percussion (Steve Przybylski and Vaughn Irving) or a Siamese kitten-munching fish named Rosalinda (Anna Lynch).
In 1943, Phillip Wylie (a writer best known previously for co-authoring the science fiction classic “When Worlds Collide”) wrote “Generation of Vipers,” a curmudgeonly whack against almost everything American, most famously mothers and “momism.” Wylie would have loved Madame R., who dominates Kopit’s script almost as much as she dominates her son. Bossy, cynical, ready to disdain and devour anything in her path, Reck’s Madame R. can use her womanly wiles to entrap males (traveling with Venus Fly Traps is surely no accident), for whom she feels only contempt. Her feelings about sex are close to hate; her favorite hobby seems to be strolling the beach at night harassing couples making out on the sand. Madame R. has a lengthy monologue in the second half of the script in which she makes her feelings and motives extremely, scarily clear. It goes on too long, becoming somewhat tedious, which I ascribe far more to Kopit’s writing (he wrote the piece quickly as part of university playwriting competition) than Reck’s acting, which never flags in energy and specificity. It’s quite a tour de force of absurdity, which Reck pulls off by taking her character fully seriously.
Jonathan — who Madame R. insists on calling by a series of names not his own — is a mass of neuroses and dysfunctions, including obsessive attachments to his stamp and coin collections and a homemade telescope, a nearly total lack of social skills, and a timorousness bordering on the pathological. With his tense, hunched-over stance; his thin, squeezed voice he is almost afraid to hear; and the predominance through most of the play of his flight response; Strowd creates a vivid physical character. Change for Jonathan arrives not with a characteristic whimper but a destructive bang, unfortunately for vegetable, animal, and human characters in proximity to his sudden rage. Strowd makes the rapid transition thoroughly credible.
When we first see Erin’s Rosalie, she looks every bit the dewey-eyed girl next door, denying Madame R.’s accusation of seamier activities while charming the easily-spooked Jonathan. Later, however, in her younger, more sexual way, she is revealed as a female predator in her own right, a worthy potential successor to Madame R. in Jonathan’s life. What Erin’s performance makes clear is that Rosalie hasn’t changed between her earlier and later scenes; rather, Erin reveals more and more of what Rosalie has been all along. She plays Rosalie’s final attempt to seduce Jonathan as a near-rape seizure of power over him, making his resulting panic attack understandable.
While I found plenty of reasons to admire the three principal performances, I must confess that my favorite character was the fish. Named after Dad’s mistress, Lynch’s Rosalinda was apparently pre-set under a cloth-covered table, emerging only when the bellboys bring on a large aquarium in which she then pops up, her face in orange makeup and wearing an orange headpiece suggesting fins. Lynch, while maintaining an undulating underwater-like motion, is gleefully attentive and responsive to everything and everyone on stage. Rosalinda has no intelligible spoken lines, and Lynch forms her character completely physically, with only her head and neck visible during most of the show, until a final choreographed moment that appears to illustrate (or perhaps to have inspired) Marshall’s program note comment that “freer can mean dead.” If it was impossible to take one’s eyes off Rosalind, no matter what else was going on, it wasn’t just because the aquarium was center stage.
The bellboys (Jorge A. Silva, Brian David Clarke, Andrew Quilpa, Chema Pineda-Fernandez, and Manolo Santalla), in addition to their prop-moving chores, act as a sort of chorus to the demented goings-on. They move and respond delightfully as they deal with people even more unusual than the general run of touristas. Silva also stands in for Dad as Madame R. describes the course of her marriage, and Santalla doubles as Commodore Roseabove, an elderly yachtsman who Madame R. tries to snare and who somewhat improbably becomes the closest thing in the play to a sane character.
Oh Dad… was one of the more prop-intensive shows I have seen recently, and Kevin Laughon’s collection — including a dictaphone, jury-rigged telescope, a coffin, stamps, coins, suitcases, wooden boxes, and many others — added greatly to the look of the show. The set (Kaite Wertz) consists of blue panels forming the angled walls of the hotel suite, with an alcove on stage left for the musicians/Venus Fly Traps. For the final scenes, the panels swing around to become the pink walls of Madame R.’s master bedroom, decorated with miscellaneous objects from her presumed travels. A bed unit rolls out, tilted high to make the action readily visible as Rosalie tries to bed Jonathan. In a particularly creepy effect, various hands, alien-like, ripple the pink sheets under Rosalie as she works at enticing her prey.
Most of the sound track of the show is provided by the two costumed musicians, who play a variety of Latin sounds for atmosphere as well as providing some precisely timed effects. Sound designer Thomas Sowers also provides occasional ambient sound, such as buzzing flies or an overflying airplane. Costumer Jacy Barber put the bellboys in blue jackets and caps, while Rosalie is in a print dress emphasizing the surface of her character and nicely concealing the predator beneath. When Madame R. is attempting her seduction of Commodore Roseabove, she wears a low-cut black outfit, while Jonathan is in a sports shirt and tie with shorts, emphasizing his enforced childhood status (not out of short pants at 20). Aside from the aforementioned headpiece, Rosalinda is in a fetching orange and cream body suit, while the musicians inevitably don green and yellow Venus Fly Trap getups. In all these respects, TACT’s Oh Dad… is a production that never fails to look good.
What does it all mean? Madame R. asks the question at the show’s conclusion, and Marshall’s answer is that the play is “the scream of the Fifties begging to be let out of its sterile, gray, restrictive, black and white room into the psychedelic and violent Sixties to come,” even though the playwright couldn’t be aware of it at the time he wrote the script. That, I suppose, depends on one’s view and experience of those decades. From my perspective, the comment may not do justice to the 50s, a much more interesting and dynamic decade than it is often given credit for. Given its acting and technical virtues, however, the TACT production is not simply a piece of historical and cultural commentary but a lively, highly engaging theatrical experience.
A leap of faith. It’s when you know you have to get to the other side, but you can’t for the life of you figure out how you’ll get there, so you take the plunge anyway. As a senior at Harvard when writing the play, Kopit was smart, probably very frustrated, not knowing what the real world would hold. American culture was straining to break out of the ’50s and into…anything else. We now know that the ’60s yielded space exploration, the shattered romantic notions of the post-war peace, and the broken boundaries of sexual, pharmacological, and racial tolerance.
I find this play strikingly relevant. Conversations with my peers constantly swirl around finding independence and autonomy under a tired government and stringent career hierarchies. Gone are the days of playing with model airplanes and Legos, of building forts with my grandmother’s couch cushions. What will be my place in the time to come? And what tricks does my mind play to scare me away from the less comfortable possibilities?
My mother tells the story of holding my oldest brother in her arms, days after giving birth, laughing out loud and saying to him, in words he could not understand, “Why do you trust me to hold you? You have no idea that this is my first time, too.” At its heart, I see Oh Dad as the story of a mother who has no idea how to parent her child and tries to love him with the only things she knows — protection and power. We see this through the eyes of her son, who also has no idea how to live life and tries to experience it by whatever means available. The dark comedy comes out as Jonathan succeeds and fails. He reminds us of the faces we all make when we realize there’s no net to catch our fall.
We all go through big life changes with unknown outcomes. Whether it’s puberty or parenting, political revolutions or personal resolutions, breaking the norms or pushing comfort zones, everyone fears what will come. But that doesn’t stop us from taking a leap of faith. And sometimes it takes a little song in our hearts to push us that extra mile.
Photos by Johannes Markus
- Madame Rosepettle: Robin Reck
- Jonathon (her son): Tony Strowd
- Rosalinda (her fish): Anna Lynch
- Rosalie: Emery Erin
- Commodore Roseabove: Manolo Santalla
- Bellboys: Jorge A. Silva, Brian David Clarke, Andrew Quilpa, Chema Pineda-Fernandez, Manolo Santalla
- Musicians/Composers/SuperFly Traps: Steve Przybylski, Vaughn Irving
- Director: Tyler Herman
- Production Manager: Ed Moser
- Stage Manager: Sarah Kamins
- Assistant Director: Annalisa Dias
- Assistant Stage Manager: Lindsey E Moore
- Set Design/Scenic Artist: Katie Wertz
- Costume Design: Jacy Barber
- Lighting Design: Jason Aufdem-Brinke
- Sound Design: Thomas Sowers
- Properties Design: Kevin Laughon
- Master Carpenter: Michael Salmi
- Master Electrician: Jorge A. Silva
- Seamstress: Sandy Smoker
- Publicist: Emily Morrison
- Photography: Johannes Markus
- Program Layout: Michael Sherman
Disclaimer: American Century Theater provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/10298.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.