Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What Is It Really Saying? Soulpepper Theatre Company's You Can't Take It with You

Less than half of the cast of Soulpepper's You Can't Take It With You (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Soulpepper Theatre Company's production of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's 75-year-old farcical play You Can't Take It With You is beautifully staged, immaculately acted and frequently one-liner funny.


You knew there was a ‘but’ coming, didn't you? Director Joseph Ziegler has made a major blunder with his production. He took the material and played at face value what, in 2012, should have been processed through some sort of 21st century critical filter. Otherwise all he's doing is staging, at best, a dusty museum piece; or, at worst, a play that verges on being mildly racist. You Can’t Take it with You is more than just dated, it’s downright misguided. In 1936, when this Pulitzer Prize-winning play first hit Broadway, it was probably considered an entertaining piece of wish-fulfilling escapist fluff; something to pass the time during the latter stages of the Depression. Two years later, Frank Capra made it into a movie which went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and Capra won for Best Director. I remember seeing the film version many years ago, and finding it endearingly funny. Not so much now.

Krystin Pellerin & Gregory Prest
The story centres on the Sycamore family, and some of their friends, who share a big, old rambling house in an unnamed American city. Essentially, the house has become a refuge for eccentric characters. There's Grandpa (Eric Peterson), who 35 years prior decided to quit work and spend the rest of his life having “fun.” Fun for Grandpa is collecting stamps, attending college graduation ceremonies and acquiring snakes, etc. Clearly, his decision has influenced most of the rest of the family. His middle-aged daughter, Penny (Nancy Palk), flits from writing wretched plays – as her daughter, Essie (Patricia Fagan), says at one point, “My mother writes plays because eight years ago a typewriter was delivered here by mistake” – to painting awful portraits of members of the household dressed in Ancient Rome gear. Penny's husband, Paul (Derek Boyes), works diligently in the basement with his permanent live-in assistant, Mr. de Pinna (Michael Simpson), creating fireworks. Penny and Paul's daughter, the aforementioned Essie, passes her time making candies and performing really bad ballet. Also around are their cook, Rheba (Sabryn Rock), and her boyfriend, Donald (Andre Sills) – more on them in a second. There's also Ed (Mike Ross), Essie's husband, who does little more than sell Essie's candies and use his small printing press to print up slogans and brochures he finds “interesting.” Also on hand is Kolenkhov (Diego Matamoros), a crazed Russian who was brought in some years ago to teach Essie how to dance (his comment on her dancing? “Frankly, she stinks”). And then there's Alice (Krystin Pellerin), Penny and Paul's younger daughter. Penny has a job in a big office and she's fallen in love with the owner's son, Tony (Gregory Prest). What? What she's doing here? She's the catalyst for the plot, that's what. She loves her family, but she just wants a normal life, a normal life that Tony seems to offer. The big turn is when she invites Tony and his very wealthy and snobby parents over to meet her family. Of course, the meeting is a catastrophe.

We wouldn't have a farce if this all went well.

So far, so good. The set up is fine and many of the huge cast do a wonderful job, particularly Nancy Palk, Gregory Prest (both in Soulpepper’s Long Day's Journey Into Night from earlier this year, showing their expert range in doing remarkable work in both comedy and tragedy), Eric Peterson (his playful eccentricity is fun), Patricia Fagan (her bad ballet is mostly delightful) Diego Matamoros (his crazed Russian is consistently a delight) and Krystin Pellerin (who probably has the toughest job playing “straight man” to a stage full of quirky nutcases). With such a huge cast, many times with almost all of them all on stage, I watched the other actors to see what they were doing (while two or three other characters were talking). At no point did the actors without dialogue seem disengaged during those moments. That's a tribute to both the talent on stage and Ziegler's skill with the production. A little screechy arm-flapping occurs near the end, but generally irritating antics are well reigned in by Ziegler.

Director Joseph Ziegler
But then there are the problems. Rheba and Donald are black. Donald is portrayed as a racial stereotype – a shiftless black man who's too lazy to work and collects “relief cheques” from the government. I understand some trimming of the dialogue about them was done by Ziegler, especially comparing them to Porgy and Bess, but he should have gone further and at the very least either reworked Donald's position in the house or dropped his character entirely. Sills plays him well, and his sense of physical comedy is flawless, but his character is an unforgivable stereotype. This is what I mean about Ziegler's mistake about taking this work at face value without thinking exactly what it might be saying to an audience in the 21st century. Namely, as the rest of the play makes clear, don't give the government any money, do whatever you want, live your selfish life however you please, and basically don't give a damn about what sort of impact your actions will have on the rest of society. Big business is the big bad here. For example, late in the play, Grandpa convinces Tony's father, Mr. Kirby (an unrecognizable John Jarvis), to abandon his company and (as he wanted to do when he was young) do whatever he wants. (In the Capra film, he wanted to play harmonica; it's never made clear what he will do in the play.) That, of course, also means destroying the lives of thousands of employees who rely on his company for their livelihoods. This is a left-leaning version of what Ayn Rand espoused – the individual should do whatever he likes regardless of the consequences (but in her case, she believed Capitalism and the Captains of Industry should be allowed to do whatever they wish to achieve their ends). Ayn Rand is pilloried by the left for her frankly selfish point of view, but how is this left-wing version by Hart and Kaufman play any different?

Some will say in defence of the play that “this is a light farce, you can't take it seriously.” But, of course, you can. No matter what it is, whether it's a grand tragedy or a 'check your brain at the door' comedy, you must always look at just exactly what it is trying to say. If that 'fluffy' comedy from the Depression era presents ideas, within a comic framework, which just does not match current attitudes, there is something wrong in the state of Denmark. Even Shakespeare is changed and challenged, as it should be, perhaps not in Hamlet, but certainly in The Merchant of Venice whose Shylock is a tricky character because he is held up to anti-Semitic ridicule in the play, acceptable when the play was written, but always examined and critiqued within the framework of any recent production. The same should hold true with a farcical comedy from 75 years ago. Joseph Ziegler's production of You Can’t Take It with You does not do that. And it should have.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to http://www.wordplaysalon.com/ for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

1 comment:

  1. Actually, I took it at farce value, although I did cringe when the two black actors were on stage. I saw it two weeks ago, and my wife noticed that Eric Peterson seemed to be forgetting his lines. He also had a manic look in his smile, something he never had when he played Oscar or ornery types like Oscar.