Friday, December 16, 2011

A Delectable Pastry: Soulpepper Theatre Company's Parfumerie

Oliver Dennis & Patricia Fagan in Parfumerie by Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company

Recently, I apologized to an actor friend of mine because I'd missed a play he was in. He laughed and said, “Oh, don't worry about it. It's just a pastry; a confection. It's nothing that serious.” I thought, but didn't say, “A piece of frothy fun, done well, can be as good and as important as a great tragedy.” That thought came to mind as I left Soulpepper Theatre Company's 2011 Christmas show, Parfumerie by Miklós László: it's frothy fun with a serious edge (it's playing until December 30th in Toronto's Distillery District). Parfumerie may be unknown to most people, but it is actually the basis for not one, not two, but three movies, plus a Broadway musical. Do the movies The Shop Around the Corner (1940), In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and You've Got Mail (1998) ring a bell? They're all based on this obscure Hungarian play written in 1937 by Miklós László (the musical was 1963's She Loves Me).

The Shop Around the Corner, starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, and directed by comic master Ernst Lubitsch, is one of my favourite movies. So when I heard in 2009 that Soulpepper had found and resurrected the original play, (the new translation was created specifically for Soulpepper by Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins) I was intrigued. I waited too long and it was sold out. Last year, Soulpepper remounted their fine production of A Christmas Carol, so I thought I was out of luck. Fortunately, Parfumerie did so well in 2009 that they have decided to alternate it every second year with A Christmas Carol

Stewart and Sullavan in The Shop Around the Corner
The play and the Lubitsch film follow a very similar story line. It's Budapest in 1937; a few short years before WWII. As Christmas approaches, business at the Hammerschmidt perfume shop (Matuschek's handbag store in the film) is on the upswing. In the shop, as with any working environment, some people manage to get along better than others. The two who fight like cats and dogs are head shop assistant, George Asztalos (Oliver Dennis), and junior clerk, Rosie Balaz (Patricia Fagan). What neither knows is that they are each other’s secret pen pal. The letters they have been anonymously sending to each other for weeks reveal that they are deeply in love, and share personal thoughts about both their lives and dreams. In the real world, however, they loath and despise each other. Overseeing all of this is Mikos Hammerschmidt (Joseph Ziegler). Hammerschmidt is a hard task master who is very demanding of his staff. Over this Christmas, he is particularly hard on Asztalos for reasons Asztalos cannot fathom – the reasons are revealed before the play is half over: someone in the shop is having an affair with Hammerschmidt's wife and he's convinced it is Asztalos.

The staff consists of all types: Louis Sipos (Michael Simpson) is a very cautious older man just trying to keep his head down so he doesn't lose his job in tough times; Stephan Kadash (Kevin Bundy) is the resident ladies man who is constantly mooching cash from Rosie to keep his various women (and himself) in the style they've become accustomed; Miss Ratz (Maev Beaty) is the female equivalent of Kadash – she vamps her way around the shop hitting on men with abandon; Miss Molnar (co-writer, Brenda Robins) is the spinster who carries a torch for Hammerschmidt; and Arpad Krepus (Jeff Lillico) represents the shop's motor-mouthed delivery boy. With the scenario in place, you know, even if you've not seen any of the film (or theatrical versions), what will happen. Since the outcome is no big surprise, the journey in Soulpepper's Parfumerie is simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and as subtly moving as The Shop Around the Corner.

Wonderfully directed by Morris Panych and beautifully designed by Ken MacDonald (MacDonald's Art Deco perfume shop is a visual treat worthy of the script itself), Parfumerie's performers move deftly and gracefully from flat out, run-around-the-set farce (the two sequences that depict a busy time in the store are outstandingly blocked – the actors fly and jump past each other as they charge around the shop trying to help every customer. How they didn't run into each other is beyond me) to a deeply felt near tragedy as one character deals with the emotional wreckage that surrounds his life. It's a tough balancing act, and if was not there in the original script, there's nothing Panych or his capable cast could have done to impose it. The central scenario, where two characters despise each other and end up in each others arms, is as old as Shakespeare (The Taming of the Shrew, etc.), if not older, and yet when handled with the ingenuity of László's, the results are divine.

Oliver Dennis and Joseph Ziegler
Dennis and Fagan in the leads are wonderful. Panych's decision to not cast traditionally attractive people in the roles is inspired. Dennis, so good earlier this year in Soulpepper's overlong absurdist tragedy Exit the King, absolutely shines as Asztalos. His physicality is first rate, while his line delivery has the snap and verve worthy of a good screwball comedy. Fagan is mostly his equal, however she's required to spend so much time crazy-mad at Asztalos that she occasionally gets stuck in one-note yelling (the way Asztalos acts towards her, though, you sympathize with her exasperation). Joseph Ziegler, as the cuckholded Hammerschmidt, hits similar grace notes that Frank Morgan uncovered as Matuschek in the Lubitsch film. This is not to suggest Ziegler is just copying Morgan's approach. He is acknowledging it, but also expanding on the overwhelming sadness that surrounds the character, something that Morgan only touched on. Jeff Lillico, as the delivery boy, is also fine. You believe his transition from delivery boy to trusted clerk. Lillico looks a little like a younger version of theatre veterans Tom McCamus coupled with Stephen Ouimette. The future will tell if his talents live up to theirs.

If there's a weakness in the generally superb cast it's with Kevin Bundy as Kadash. The character is a pretentious, self-absorbed Lothario, but Bundy brings too much of an effeminate tone to the role to make him believable as a cad and womanizer. The other problem is with the character itself. Miss Ratz is clearly there to be a mirror for Kadash – a woman who uses her feminine wiles to get what she wants, and Maev Beaty is having fun in the role. But Ratz becomes unnecessary and merely echoes Kadash. So it is not surprising that László chose to have her character disappear from the show part way through Act II.  I think screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, when he was writing the script for The Shop Around the Corner, came to the same conclusion because her character is not in the film.

There are bits and pieces peppered throughout this play that make me smile whenever I recall them. Whenever a customer finishes a purchase, Miss Molnar rings a bell and every cast member raises their arms, turns to the departing customer and calls out in a very loud voice “Thank you for shopping at Hammerschmidt's.” (I think it's something all shops should be required to do. It would go over so well in Pier 1 or The Bay, don't you think?). Another favourite moment is the use of live violinist (Miranda Mulholland) and accordionist (Mike Ross) as both 'buskers' in the shop that are constantly being shooed away, and musical commentators on the action.

Parfumerie is most certainly a “pastry,” but it's a pastry with an exquisite, fresh centre that makes you want to return to it again and again. It's probably why I watch The Shop Around the Corner every Christmas. Seeing a production as fine as this makes me wonder what other plays Miklós László wrote that have never been translated. If they are as touching and affecting as Parfumerie, I think it's time somebody got translating.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information. And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

1 comment:

  1. Here's another example: "Thank you for shopping at the LCBO -- the only game in town for alcohol"...