Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Delicious Confection: Soulpepper's Production of Parfumerie

Patricia Fagen & Oliver Dennis in Parfumerie (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
The first thing you notice about Soulpepper Theatre’s delightful production of Parfumerie, Miklos Laszlo’s 1937 comedy, is that it is beautiful. Ken MacDonald’s set is a delicious confection of curves and swirls, in ivory and deep pink, setting off Dana Osborne’s rich and evocative costumes. The parfumerie of the title is Hammerschmidt and Company, purveyors of scents, lotions and makeup, as well as various other accoutrements, accessories and gift items (even the items for sale, sprinkled all over the set, are attractive). It is Budapest, in the 1930s, but it could be almost any place or era. This is a tale almost Shakespearean in its elements, a story of love and desire, jealousy and ambition. And Christmas, of course. Mustn’t forget Christmas.

Miklos Hammerschmidt (Joseph Ziegler), the proprietor, is out of sorts, and taking it out on his staff, especially senior clerk and salesman George Asztalos (Oliver Dennis), who can’t figure out what he did to anger the boss. George, in fact, is in love with a woman he’s never met, a mystery correspondent with whom he has been exchanging heated, madly romantic but anonymous letters via post-office boxes. It is soon revealed that Hammerschmidt suspects George of having an affair with Mrs. Hammerschmidt, an affair to which he has been tipped off in an anonymous letter. (Anonymity is an important device in this play.) But Mrs. Hammerschmidt’s real lover is Stephan Kadash (Kevin Bundy), another clerk in the shop, a slick piece of work who gets by on money borrowed from the women who work in the shop. It turns out that George’s mystery woman is none other than Rosie Balaz (Patricia Fagan), the shop girl with whom he bickers constantly over what he sees as her sloppiness and laziness. (You may recognize in this description Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 romantic film The Shop Around the Corner, starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, which was adapted from Laszlo’s play.)

(photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
The play, an adaptation by Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins (who also does a nice turn in the show as Miss Molnar, the senior woman clerk who nurses a secret affection for Mr. Hammerschmidt), is in many ways a farce. But there is a dark side to it, as well, beginning with the adultery that forms one of the main plot threads, and the suicide attempt by Mr. Hammerschmidt that results from it. But even this grimmer note results in a fair bit of humour, most of it courtesy of ambitious and hyperactive shop assistant Arpad Krepus (Jeff Lillico). There are delightful musical “interludes,” with Miranda Mulholland on violin and music director Noah Reid on accordion (I think it’s Reid; the program is not entirely clear), wandering on stage and off, playing Gypsy-flavoured tunes in keeping with the mood of the play. I was happy to see them every time they appeared. If they’d have been busking, I’d have dropped money in the hat.

Veteran director Morris Panych keeps the action brisk, and the superb cast – especially Dennis and Fagan as the bickering unknown lovers – moves nimbly through the plot complications and a lot of physical humour. But while most of the cast is busy and the farce is with it, two of the more interesting performances come from the two most understated performers. Ziegler’s Mr. Hammerschmidt is moving and likeable, jealousy aside, and Michael Simpson, as older shop clerk Louis Sipos, is drolly funny through much of the play, and quietly touching toward the end, worrying about how he will support his family if the parfumerie does poorly, especially in the Christmas season.

In keeping with the holiday spirit, and the fact that we’re talking about romantic comedy, everything ends well, with the right people in love, the nice people doing well and the bad ones thoroughly off-stage. A Merry Christmas to all.

Jack Kirchhoff is an arts writer and editor in Toronto.

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