Saturday, September 24, 2011

REVIEW: Felix + The Diligence

FELIX + THE DILIGENCE
September 24th through October 8th



When actors come off the stage after a show, look me in the eye, and tell me they know exactly how much I was laughing, I really can't pretend I didn't like it. So much for professional distance, I guess.

SET DESIGN

While their previous production, the NYIT award winning Caucasian Chalk Circle (my review here and more thoughts here), was much grander in scale, there's one aspect of this production that stayed in the world of grandiosity: the set. You can tell how much so, because I'm talking about it first.

Andy Yanni, who once dropped an attic roof on my head, has constructed the entire top deck of the Diligence, a creaky galleon pressed into service during World War Two to fish cod, because all of the not-shitty boats are out doing real war things. A young man named Felix (Benj Mirman) asks to be taken aboard so he can find adventure, and a young woman by the name of Felix (Arielle SSiegel) asks to be taken aboard so she can escape from another young man (Nathaniel Katzman) -- whose name will be unveiled in a shocking twist.

Once at sea, hijinks occur, with sea monsters, nazis, man-on-mermaid romance, and gender-swapping romance. Blah blah blah.

Seriously. They built a whole freakin' boat...

NOSTALGIA

With both this play, and another play I'm going to review later tonight called The Queen of the May, the real object of satire is nostalgia. Here, playwright Colby Day (here's the Ghost of Dracula he produced, very much in his style) is taking on the notion that sometimes we are nostalgic for those things we've never experienced, and only upon living them we realize that they are not at all what we thought we were getting.

Felix -- the first Felix -- comes aboard the Diligence dreaming of adventure, like those he dreamed about reading adventure stories. He quickly discovers that the high seas is basically swabbing the deck and getting crapped on by everyone who doesn't have that same wild-eyed sense of wonder and adventure. When he sees sea monsters and mermaids of the ship, nobody believes him -- he's just a dumb kid with stars in his eyes.

Even the show's central action storyline -- Nazis! -- skewers the notion of nostalgia. After all, what's more nostalgic than Americans whomping on evil Nazis, who are scurrying around on the deck trying (for suitably poor reasons) to steal our secrets? The "everybody lives happily ever after" doesn't apply to them, nor does the idea that human lives have value.

JUST PLAIN CUTENESS
Although the characters start out with wild-eyed wonder, mooning off into the distance, they quickly realize that having emotions is a great way to have those emotions hurt, so they experiment with different approaches to guarding their hearts, usually by performing childishly masculine shows of bravado (and I'm talking about both genders here).

This is where the play gets to speak to us, today, in the lives we live now (as in, not at sea). Characters begin relationships with the wide-eyed wonder of love, nostalgic for the image of relationships that they've been sold. And within a blink of an eye, they hit walls, and fall into equally stupid "jaded" stances. The play mocks our naivete, but the real attack is on those who have closed their hearts.

No character shows this more -- or stands out more from the excellent cast -- than Captain Chapman. Of course, it's worth my pointing out that the evening I saw the production, Captain Chapman was played by the understudy, ASM Meagan Kensil, as opposed to the award-winning actor Alistair Falk who I had come to see. Never have I been so happy to be at a performance with an understudy.

Captain Morgan, who you can see in the photo above as the young lady in the too-big boots and the drawn-on moustache, is the typical man's man captain: hates music, swears, whips his crew, and stamps around. Unfortunately, rather than noted actor Alastair Falk, the petite Meagan Kensil seemed to undercut the role by being, well, a small woman. And yet, fortuitously, this seemed to play into the shrewd hands of Colby Day -- watching Meagan forcing herself to try and fulfill this impossible larger-than-life ship's captain image, plays into this notion that we can never truly capture the images we have in our head.

SLAP-STICK DELIGHTS
And of course, beyond all this thematic interest, there's a damn lot of great slapstick comedy. Watching the crew pretending to be thrown around in a storm, tossing buckets of water into each others faces, you'll be -- as the saying goes -- laughing out load.

Here, the ensemble acquits themselves well. Mike Steinmetz brings the house town simply by walking on stage as any of the sea monsters he portrays. Samuel Chapin as the musician will be your favorite character who never speaks a word. And, to cap it all, no one will make you feel like you've lost your brain like Nicole Spiezio (previously: Fat Kids on Fire), as the narrator, Henley. Here too, a character is cast against type -- a young effusive lady pretending to be an old blind man.

In a few moments -- especially at the beginning -- sharpness is wanting. But by the time the cast is reeling around in the storm, the slapstick reaches the tight level of choreography, making each move a delight.

AND SO
And so, here you have it: hysterical, touching, ridiculous, and rewarding.

... OH I ALMOST FORGOT -- there's a lot of references to the vaginas of sea creatures! I guess I just thought I'd throw that out there.

(FCC Disclaimer: I'm supposed to tell you I got a ticket for free because that apparently sways my judgment. Never mind that I lived with the playwright, or have reviewed almost every show this company has done and still get a little thrill when I see them quote my name, or that I would give my kidney for any of them -- apparently they spared me $15, and that's what the law cares about.)

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