The venerable Old Log Theater in Excelsior has been presenting British farces and contemporary comedies since 1940. In Minnesota theater circles it’s considered a granddaddy, having helped to launch careers of local actors from Loni Anderson to Steve Zahn. The theater’s most recent offering, Jeeves in Bloom, written by Margaret Raether and based on characters created by the author P.G. Wodehouse (the second such play by Ms. Raether), is now playing through February 5, 2011. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t promise to be among the golden children of that illustrious history.
In this episode, Bertie Wooster (David McMenomy) is a well-to-do London bachelor who apparently doesn’t need to work but does require the constant supervision of his wise butler Jeeves (James Cada) to guide him through life. Bertie’s aunt Dahlia Travers (Sally Ann Wright) demands Bertie’s immediate appearance at her country home near Worcestershire, where she lives with her husband Thomas (Steve Shaffer) and employs a French chef, Anatole (also played by Steve Shaffer). The Traverses are hosting Thomas’s niece, Madeline Basset (Jane Froiland), who happens to be the love interest of Bertie’s friend Gussie Fink-Nottle (Clarence Wethern), a nerdy scientist who harbors a passion for newts. The reluctant Bertie convinces Gussie to come along so that he may properly woo Madeline, with whom Gussie has previously been too love-stricken to speak. Once he arrives, Bertie learns that his aunt requires his assistance to help her stage a burglary of her own jewels. Even the naive Bertie knows that’s a bad idea, however.
|jeeves in bloom, presented through february 5 at the old log theater. for tickets ($19.50-$36.00) and information, see oldlog.com.|
The play opens with a madcap chase scene with all the characters shouting and running around the stage until Bertie stops the action, addresses the audience, and starts the story over. After this abrupt shift, it takes well into the first act for the storyline to pick up, and Bertie never talks directly to the audience again. The first act is redeemed by a funny scene that draws upon the famous Cyrano de Bergerac story where the shy lover (in this case, Gussie) relies upon a more experienced suitor (Bertie) to feed him romantic lines to speak to his beloved (Madeline). The crowd roared at Wethern’s hilarious physical antics as he pretended to speak the lines being delivered by Bertie, and he showed this wonderful zany side again later when he demonstrated the male newt’s mating habits to show his affection for Madeline. In those scenes and others, Wethern fully uses the opportunity to exploit his physicality to maximum humorous effect. Froiland too is delightfully melodramatic in her mannerisms as a starry-eyed girl who writes romantic poetry, and who is quick to succumb to her mistaken belief in the romantic interest of Bertie, at the expense of the genuine interest of Gussie. Her British accent was the most consistent, along with McMenomy’s and Wethern’s. Shaffer’s French accent was also respectable, but I wished he had exaggerated it even more for comic effect. In fact, I thought some of the actors played their parts too safely in general: I wished the director had asked them to camp it up to take full advantage of the outrageously contrived situations.
Even though we were unfamiliar with Wodehouse novels, my companion and I expected Jeeves to be a droll yet wise and loveable character like John Gielgud in Arthur; surprisingly, what we got was a stiff, overly-deadpan butler whose few lines strained to be funny. Jeeves was also the only character in the production who didn’t use a recognizable British accent (or a French accent, in the case of Anatole), which was quite puzzling, considering that anyone who has ever heard of Jeeves would expect him to be a stately British gentleman. The respect and admiration that the other characters held for Jeeves didn’t make sense because he gave us no reason to believe that he was in charge. We knew Bertie was a dolt, based on the opening scene, but nothing in the performance or script indicated Jeeves’s exceptional character and intelligence. As the title role, one would expect James Cada’s Jeeves to have assumed a more forceful presence. As it was, his limited lines, though central to the plot development, faded in impact with his delivery. This was not necessarily the actor’s fault but may have been a directing choice.
On the night we attended, a speaker that buzzed throughout most of the first act was an irritating distraction and covered up some of the dialogue. The single set was an attractive brick-framed courtyard, but didn’t provide a complete picture of what kind of people these were, as this was an outdoor garden that could have been in a middle or upper class home. Also, in the opening scene when Bertie corresponds with his aunt from his own London home, he merely stands in the same garden, with no special props or set pieces to suggest a different location. The costumes are nice but not particularly special, and Aunt Dahlia’s short and spiky hairstyle seems too modern for a British woman in 1931. A wig would have been a less distracting choice.
Like Jeeves, the Old Log Theater is respected and beloved for its longstanding reputation in the community. This play by itself does not inspire that, unfortunately. Jeeves in Bloom has some of the elements of a successful farce, but inconsistency in style and energy prevent it from being the breezy romp that we hoped to enjoy.
|This production is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you’ll know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.|