Mass Appeal is a rare example of an intelligent comedy.
It's an even more rare example of an intelligent comedy about the church. And the production at Huron Country Playhouse is a shining performance of this two-man play written by Bill C. Davis in 1981.
In its soul, Mass Appeal is about the bravery needed to put principles before popularity-yet at the same time still love those around you.
In the play, Rev. Tim Farley, an experienced Roman Catholic priest, has certainly made himself popular with his congregation. But he is really avoiding difficult issues in their lives with his one-liners and glib answers. Mark Dolson, a seminary student soon to become Tim's deacon, disturbs the priest's world right from the first scene with his insistence on discussing the substance of their faith.
On the surface, that makes Tim seem like the bad guy-or at least the buffoon. But as portrayed by veteran actor Ted Follows, making his first appearance on the Huron stage, Tim is too much like most of us for us to look down on him.
Not everyone can come up with Tim's wisecracks and rubber-faced humor. But many others are also just trying to find a way to cope with an imperfect world.
Stephen Degenstein's set and the lighting by Simon Day evoke the beauty of old churches as well as their dark corners, where too many secrets can be hidden.
But let's not get too serious. This is a comedy after all.
Follows is a delight to watch. He carries out the bright mannerisms that bring the sprightly, sometimes silly Tim alive.
Sean Wayne Doyle's performance emphasizes Mark's naivete,
which is certainly the cause of some of the conflicts he has with
the church authorities and his congregation.
Doyle's handling of Mark's first sermon is hilarious, especially the way he grips the railing of the pulpit as if he were holding onto a lifeboat. He never lets go, even when he switches part way through to the barn-burner he has always wanted to give.
But Mark should also have a fearless side which does not come
across in this production. After all, Mark is a guy who left home
at 16 and lived in what he describes as a three-year orgy. And
that rough edge is what Tim believes will be smoothed out when
Mark becomes his deacon.
Instead, Tim comes to admire a part of Mark.
"You're a lunatic." Tim tells him in his usual half-joking manner. "And the church needs lunatics - you're one of those priceless lunatics that come along every so often and makes the church alive.''
Director Brian McKay, who is also artistic director of the playhouse, lets a friendship grow slowly between Tim and Mark.
Follows and Doyle work so well together on stage. Their pacing is terrific. Their timing - the essence of comedy is exquisite - is keen.
As stage critics and afficianados, we have been waiting quite a while to see a production of Michael Frayn's Noises Off!, a play about theatre and theatre people. We had rented the movie and, although it had a few chuckles, we held higher hopes for the original. Huron Country Playhouse's present staging, directed by Michael Lamport, fails to excite or provide the promised hilarity and is such a mess that we were embarrassed for the producers.
The play is supposed to be a study in chaos. Written in three acts, Noises Off! centres on the first act of a broad farce called Nothing On and its progression from the combined final dress and technical rehearsal to productions after the opening. The play's twisted love triangles and crazy characters cavort in this double-sided plot that shows the audience what's happening on-stage and behind the scenes.
When the curtain goes up on Act I of Noises Off!, we are sitting, unseen, in an empty theatre watching a company of actors go through the final rehearsal of Nothing On. The only person in the audience is the director Lloyd Dallas who constantly throws tantrums when proceedings on-stage are not to his liking. The tyrannized actors are under-rehearsed, over-tired and under pressure, both in the play-within-a-play, and (at least as far as under-rehearsed) on the HCP stage. In just a few hours the Nothing On cast must face their opening night.
In Act II, we find ourselves watching an actual performance of Nothing On, four weeks after opening night. Only this time, we are not sitting with the audience - we're up on stage behind the scenes with the actors watching them make their entrances and exits as we hear, but not see, exactly the same scene we witnessed in Act I.
In Act III we are once in the audience, watching for yet a third time the same scene we saw in Act I. Only now, it has changed beyond all recognition. Three months of touring, romantic entanglements, petty jealousies and professional back-stabbing have played havoc with the author's script and we watch the actors desperately battling with mangled cues and missed entrances as they ad lib their way through to the final curtain.
The primary problem is the wretched script. It just isn't that funny. Even the movie version, with consummate comedians Carol Burnett and Michael Caine in the lead, falls flat quickly (mercifully quicker even than the staged version; the first act of the movie is a full quarter hour shorter than in Grand Bend). The premise is promising, but the promise is unfulfilled. The artificial plot of Nothing On is so desperately bad that no amount of contrived situations and entanglements can justify forcing an audience to watch it three times.
The problem is exacerbated with the selection of Michael Lamport as director. Fresh from providing the voices of Tomsk and Stepney for a British children's TV series, he lacks the capacity to handle the complex staging and split-second timing required for this play. Saddled with a cast that is either incapable or unwilling to expend the effort, the production was doomed before the set was lit.
Talented HCP regular Linda Goranson is cast in the lead, playing Dotty who plays Mrs Clackett, but Lamport has allowed veteran prima donna Dinah Christie to upstage her as secondary character, Belinda/Flavia Brent. Christie's delusions of adequacy contribute to a strutting, overblown characterization. Who is or was this woman?
Two actors almost succeed in elevating their performances from the morass. Bruce Clayton (as ranting director Lloyd Dallas) and Jonathan Higgins (as Dotty's boyfriend Garry/Roger Tramplemain) provide the few genuine chuckles in the evening. The remaining cast bungle their way through what, while admittedly intended to be a finely tuned study in chaos, turns out simply to be chaotic. The result is decidedly amateurish, and well below our expectations for Ontario's third largest box office. Special irritants-in-residence: Randy J Johnston's tool-time Tim, with an accent that moves from Coronation Street to Dublin; Sharmaine Ryan's squeaking Poppy; and Ralph Small's Frederick/Philip Brent, perpetually stiffling a sneeze. David Hughes plays Selsdon Mowbray playing the Burglar, and gets away with nothing. To quote Beverley D. Mac Keen's Vicki, "Sorry?" Yes, we were.
Contributing to the collapsing standards is the cheesiest set we have ever seen from HCP's resident set designer, Robert J Ivey. Barren and wobbly walls, Goodwill-reject couch, cordless and featherweight colour television set, masquerading as a British baronial mansion.
To participate, call the Huron Country Playhouse Box Office at 1-800-706-6665 or (519) 238-6000.
Or rent the movie and only waste $4.00.