Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Foreigner is dated but still goofy fun

Plot quicky overview :  The Foreigner is a 30-year-old script by the late American playwright Larry Shue. It is daft and wonky and full of plot coincidences. The word hokey comes to mind. Ironically, it is being staged by ACT on tour at the same time the in-town troupe at G.I. is putting on The Mountaintop, about Martin Luther King.

Ironic? Because The Foreigner is set in mid-80's Georgia, USA, and features some madcap antics (sic) by a gang of local Ku Klux Klan goofs. Historically speaking, meanwhile, it would not be much of a reach to consider the KKK an early 20th century Christian version of today's barbaric Daesh in the Middle East.

Two primary characters drive the play's action. Charlie Baker (John Voth), a proofreader by trade, is of Oscar-stature under the category Boring. He's come to an old Georgia fishing lodge that's gone south in Tilgham County for a bit of respite from his serially unfaithful wife Mary (23 lovers at last count) who is in hospital and may be dying. His friend is a British demolitions expert named, curiously, Froggy LeSueur [lit. "the sweating frog"] (Ryan Scramstad). He's running US Army training exercises in how to blow stuff up at nearby Fort Benning.

Charlie is 99% nebbish : shy, reticent, and socially awkward, he doesn't relish social intercourse. In full-on church mouse mode he sniffs : "How does one acquire a personality?" Le Sueur tells the motherly widow Betty Meeks (Erla Faye Forsyth) who owns the resort that Charlie's a foreigner who doesn't speak any English. This excites Betty. She thinks it's exotic to house a "foe-runner". She reveals this intel to her guests. They, thinking Charlie understands nothing they say, blurt out all sorts of truthiness and factoids and dubious schemes in his presence that Charlie pretends he doesn't understand. Which, of course, leads to countless shenanigans and plot twists.

Along the way the KKK's Owen Musser (Byron Noble), a county property inspector, connives with Rev. David Lee (Mack Gordon) to downgrade the value of the property so David can buy it on the cheap from his heiress fiance, a prematurely pregnant Catherine Simms (Kaitlin Williams). But only if he can also cut her dimbulb brother Ellard (Peter Carlone) out of any inheritance entitlement if Catherine determines he's not kompas mentis enough to manage half of Dad's million dollar fortune. Most folks believe Ellard, a cheery dullard, lights up to maybe 25 watts on a slow rheostat, so the feared KKK acquisition to transform it into a Christian Hunting Cabin appears certain. Unless, of course, they were to storm the joint instead and just take it over lock, stock and barrel. Along the way Charlie fakes learning English from scratch via "extra-circular communication" from Ellard, which is central to Shue's intended comic routines and gigglery. Sound Forrest Gump-ish? Southern stereotypes even further out than those in Deliverance ? You bet. 

How to respond in 2015 : There are probably only two choices when confronting a plot-line and characters such as this in the cruel world of 2015. Either one dismisses and boycotts the script as vaguely offensive in light of current events. Or one wholly suspends one's disbelief and accepts the tomfoolery for what it's worth at face value. Take that attitude regardless of the real-time horrors that slap us almost senseless night after night on our t.v. screens.

Or if, as the New York Times suggested in 2009, the play were to be viewed as "fairytale", maybe it can redeem its utterly preposterous plot and all the silly Southern stereotypes. (Playwright Shue, who died in a commuter air crash in 1985, acted briefly in Atlanta in the 70's. He once reportedly said he wrote his plays out of "embarrassment". As if perhaps he enjoyed making people like himself the butt of his jokes. [He played the role of Froggy in the original 1984 staging of the play in Milwaukee, WI that ran for 686 performances, Wiki tells us.])

Character out-takes : As Charlie, John Voth creates a nifty & comely persona that is part Tom Hanks as Forrest, part Andy Kaufman from t.v.'s Taxi, and part Peter Sellers from Being There. He becomes everyone's listening post and confidante, dispensing simple joys to the "good guys" and masterminding some sci-fi karma for the bad guys in the end with the help of a croquet mallet and a handy-dandy trapdoor. His made-up native tongue that is gobbledygook slavish indi-afro -- "Blahz-nee, blahz-nee, go no rim jambo, vaznozian dotsky!" &c. &c. -- is sheer delight.  The "hoppy skippy minky" story he acts out for everyone across the top of the chesterfield was simply priceless, earning cheers and claps from the crowd.

But Voth's role for much of the play, this reviewer concludes, is to act as foil for the spry lodge matron Bett. Comparisons with someone no doubt a mentor to Erla Faye Forsyth, Nicky Cavendish, cannot be avoided.  All the clever stage business and facial contortions and hippety-hop Ms. Forsyth executes are done not just excellently but perfectly. One of her choicest bits is early on when she yells at Charlie, thinking him incapable of understanding her English. How often folks do just that when traveling abroad or even at home when meeting immigrants who speak but their own tongue. Ms. Forsyth's comic routines and timing alone should compel theatre-lovers to go to this show.

Peter Carlone as Ellard provides a nuanced character who charms : he neither spoofs folks who may be mentally challenged in real life nor overplays the dimmish, loving soul he is. 

As Catherine, Ms. Williams describes herself as a "cutey patooty", referring to her coming out a year earlier. Now an ex-debutante, she says such a social position is "dumb, dumb, stupid, stupid mindless bullshit" (the only swear word I believe I caught in the entire play -- she says "Shoot!" a lot the rest of the time). Catherine concludes, ironically, "I don't think I was cut out to be a decent person!" though of course she is indeed, to the core, and in the end gets her man.

N.B. Each of Voth, Forsyth and Carlone won Jessies in 2014 for their roles when originally performed for / by Pacific Theatre that they reprise for this collaborative re-mount with ACT.

Very solid performances as well by the balance of the cast which was well-chosen and coached by Director Evan Frayne.

Production values : Atypically, a kvetch or two to start. The script is not only thirty years old, it is probably thirty minutes, well maybe twenty, too long. Too much exposition in both the first and second acts. All the jabber between Catherine and Charlie at the end of Act 1 could have been pared in half. In Act 2 the build-up to the confrontation with the KKK bozos diminished significantly the scene's effectiveness : its framework was too obviously and laboriously elaborated on by the characters in advance. There was no guesswork and zero surprise in the climax, though its stagey cleverness was fun to watch regardless. Lastly, changing the royalty reference from Princess Diana and her first son William to Kate Middleton to-day skews the play's time-frame awkwardly : the KKK, nearly moribund in Diana's time, is but a political skeleton to-day.

Lauchlin Johnston's set was spot-on with its faux logs, plaid sofas & throws, solid maple K-Mart dinette set and oval braided rug. Matt Frankish is the show's original lighting designer who is abetted by Ted Roberts for the tour, and between them the effects are exquisite, particularly the lightning sequences and the KKK arrival. Costume designer Sydney Cavanagh was dead-eye with all the characters' duds, especially Owen's muscle shirt, muscle vest and klompy-nazi Daytons.

Who gonna like : Opening night at the Surrey Arts Centre February 18th was greeted with triumphant cheers and Huzzah's! from the 2/3-full house, with many giving the cast a standing-o. A fellow reviewer seated behind me said she thought it perhaps the best comedic performance seen in Vancouver in many a moon. Despite its length (155 minutes with intermission), The Foreigner offers terrific mirth and wit and performance excellence galore. 

Particulars :  Written by Larry Shue.  Produced by Arts Club Theatre on tour in a Pacific Theatre production from February 18 - March 14. February 18-28, Surrey Arts Centre, 604.501.5566.  March 2nd, Capilano University, 604.990.7810.  March 3-7 Evergreen Cultural Centre, Coquitlam, 604.927.6555.  March 10, Clarke Theatre, Mission, 1.877.299.1644.  March 11, Chilliwack Cultural Centre, 604.391.7469.  March 12-13, Burnaby Shadbolt Centre, 604.205.3000.  March 14, Maple Ridge ACT Arts Centre, 604.476.2787.

Production Crew :  Director Evan Frayne.  Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston.  Original Lighting Designer Matt Frankish.  Tour Lighting Director Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Sydney Cavanagh.  Sound Designer and composer James Coomber.  Company Stage Manager Louis-Marie Bournival.  Apprentice Stage Manager Shelby Bushell.

Performers :  Peter Carlone.  Erla Faye Forsyth.  Mack Gordon.  Byron Noble.  Ryan Scramstad.  John Voth.  Kaitlin Williams.


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