Wednesday 8 June 2016

Odd Couple (Female Version) not odd : chummy !
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Until this week I had not known Neil Simon re-wrote his original 1965 script The Odd Couple twenty years later to create what is known as "the female version". A few changes. If in 1965 men had poker nights, why not instead Trivial Pursuit nites when women gather in 1985?

Host Olive is still a newsy, still slovenly and still specializes in mouldy hors d'oeuvres & warm bubbly out of her broken-down fridge, just like Oscar. And like Felix, Florence is an all-over wuss when it comes to her spouse Sidney who pulled the pin on her. These gals are what Simon imagined his poker beer buddies would act like if they were women, and often with some very amusing one-liners that pay lip service, but no more, to au courant social and gender issues.

On the final Preview night I say as Olive Madison, Launi Bowie strikes home convincingly with her character, giving it the kind of understated turn that hints of both Frances Mcdormand and Lily Tomlin. Sarah Green as Florence is the ditzy o.c. neurotic originally (and unsurpassably) played on screen by Jack Lemon. Her womanly version of that role is charming and compelling.

The set-up scenes : Simon quite obviously had some exposure to the Canadian-invented, Wisconsin-produced game of Trivial Pursuit. Small wonder. Wiki tells us some 30,000,000 games were manufactured (in over a dozen languages) between 1983-1985. His opening scene of five women playing it reveals a keen ear for all the dipsy personal cadences that intersperse the Pursuit quizzes, to wit :

Renee: Two. Science & Nature. Vera: What's the strongest muscle in a man's body? Sylvie: Before or after...? Mickey: You're not still sending Phil money are you? Olive: I can't help it. Every time I hear his voice on the phone, I end up sending him a check. He's so good at it. He puts a little whimper in because he knows it gets to me. Renee: I would never support an ex-husband. Not until women are getting equal pay with men. Sylvie: Right!! Vera: You give up on the strongest muscle? Renee: The tongue -- don't ask me how I know that...

Later, Phil phones and blubbers how he's gambled away two months rent owing on his pad. The girls urge Ollie to ignore him. She doesn't. He snivels and bleats. Ollie tells him she'll send him $300 which she immediately bumps to $650 as soon as the pathetic sucky Phil mentions their anniversary a week off (and the pathetic sucky Ollie bites, again). Renee shouts at her : "Gloria Steinem hates you!"

Florence, meanwhile, has been MIA all day. Distraught at being punted by husband Sidney, she's god-knows-where in NYC. Her pals worry she's suicidal. When she finally shows up late for T.P. nite they do an intervention and subdue her. Act One ends with her moving in with Olive. Act Two introduces the hilarious Castilian brothers who live in the same building, Manolo and Jesus Costazeula. Esa sorpresa! Florence moves in with them. "One kicks you out, two take you in. Women are finally making progress," she tells Renee with not one iota of irony.

What the show brings to the stage : As noted, this script is Simon's verbal la femme slapstickery that matches his original. I.e. in no way designed to reflect the zeitgeist of 1984 and same-sex relations as there were, quite openly and demonstrably, at the time. These are characters who simply don women's threads to spiel forth the same lines that their predecessor male characters spit out 20 years earlier. Not criticism, just an observation.

The 1965 script implied, at least, a subtle homosexual subtext underneath the Felix and Oscar squabbles that lent the show a tension and energy and thus a clever double entendre in its very title. Because Simon was so strictured by his indelible male p.o.v., however, there is some incongruity -- though no clanging dissonance -- in his rendering of the female Olive / Florence live-in scenario that he mounts 20 years down the road despite where both male and female gay culture obviously were, openly, at the time. 

The result is a script less subtly suggestive than the male version original, perhaps. But while not providing particularly more insight into human nature twenty years on from its original comic riffs, The Odd Couple (Female Version) is nevertheless an amusing evening's escapist romp that beats How I Met Your Mother hands down, no question.

Production hi-lites : What grabs the viewer instantly upon curtain is the NYC to-die-for high-ceiling'd off-white apartment with its myriad raised-panel doors, matching wall insets and crown holdings. Designer Andrea Olund, an interior design architect by trade, is decades ahead of her only six years doing WRPC productions. Her work here easily equals some of the best seen in the 150 productions on Vancouver's professional stages I've taken in over the past four years.

Costume Designer Jacquie Alexander has a trained and imaginative eye for outfitting the cast so their threads match each character's personality to a T.

Acting pin-spots : Director Susanne de Pencier had considerable Lower Mainland talent to choose from for both her leads and the support cast. But it's her trademark pizazz! that's all over the piece. The gesticulations and stage business and blocking of each of the eight characters are imaginative and manic. Voice projections, for their part, were varied : best from Flo and Manny, more diaphragm oomph! from Ollie and pals needed in the first act particularly.

In addition to the leads, there were solid performances across the night by all. But particularly by Jennifer Lane (Sylvia) and Bryce Mills (Manolo Costazuela). And no doubt to this ear that Simon's delightfully-stunned Vera (Richelle Martin) was his favourite support role to craft : gigglery writ large there.

Who gonna like : Confession. As an alumnus of WRPC (4 or 5 minor roles, 1969-1980), I confess to a soft and sentimental spot in my heart for this theatre bunch. But prejudices aside, this production provides considerable talent -- a much higher plane of performance than one expects and accepts from the customary "mom-&-pop-&-the kids" feel of many homegrown community theatre productions in small towns across the land that are nevertheless so warm and welcoming and genuine for their being so.

The Odd Couple (Female Version) is utterly fun divertissement that entertains merrily and mirthfully. WRPC deserves to beam in pride over this production.

Particulars : Two co-productions : written by Neil Simon. Original Male Version (1965) and Female Version (1985) alternating each performance day. At the White Rock Players Club Coast Capital Playhouse (1532 Johnston Road, White Rock.) From June 7 to July 2. Schedules & ticket information from WRPC or box office at 604.536.7535. Run-time 120 minutes including intermission.

Production crew : Producers Fred Partridge and Gordon Mantle.  Director Susanne de Pencier.  Set Designer Andrea Olund.  Costume Designer Jacquie Alexander.  Costume Assistants Stella Gardner & Laura MacKenzie. Sound Designer Gord Mantle.

Performers : Launi Bowie (Olive Madison). Sarah Green (Florence Ungar). Diana Harvey (Mickey). Jenn Lane (Sylvie). Richelle Martin (Vera). Bryce Mills (Manolo Costazuela). Diane Tzingounakis (Renee). Ray Van Ieperen (Jesus Costazuela).


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