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Tour de farce – ‘Don’t Dress for Dinner’

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Jen Shepard, Michelle Weatherbee, Amanda Ryan Paige (AEA) and Dominick Varvey (AEA) in a scene from PTC's "Don't Dress for Dinner." Jen Shepard, Michelle Weatherbee, Amanda Ryan Paige (AEA) and Dominick Varvey (AEA) in a scene from PTC's "Don't Dress for Dinner." (photo courtesy PTC/Ashley Elliott)

BANGOR – Silly schemes and sexy shenanigans are unfolding (and undressing) at the Bangor Opera House.

Penobscot Theatre Company’s latest production is the farce “Don’t Dress for Dinner,” adapted by Robin Hawdon from Marc Camoletti’s “Pyjama Pour Six.” Directed by Chris “Red” Blissette, the show runs through February 16.

It’s a madcap whirlwind of amorous misfortune and mistaken identity, with the questionable-at-best decisions made by a group of oversexed friends and lovers resulting in an ever-escalating spiral of lies that threatens to blow up at every turn. And with every untruth, the collapse comes closer. Will any of these relationships survive the night?

All of this playing out in a high-octane dance of entrances and exits and – of course – slamming doors galore, driven by a first-rate ensemble. It’s energetic and entertaining, a frothy bit of fun that will induce some warming, welcome laughter at this ever-so-cold time of the year.

In a renovated farmhouse a couple of hours outside of Paris, Bernard (Brad LaBree) is preparing to send his wife Jacqueline (Amanda Ryan Paige) off to spend the weekend with her mother. All is according to plan until Jacqueline intercepts a phone call intended for Bernard in which an agency confirms that they are sending a chef to cater a private affair.

Bernard then tells Jacqueline that the plan is to spend a sort of bachelor weekend with his good friend Robert (Dominick Varney), who is just back from business in Hong Kong. Bernard and Robert are longtime pals – he was even the best man at Bernard and Jacqueline’s wedding. We quickly learn that Robert and Jacqueline are close as well. VERY close, in fact, and in a much different manner than Robert and Bernard.

Jacqueline secretly begs off the visit with her mother and announces plans to stay home for the weekend. This greatly complicates Bernard’s plans – Robert was merely a convenient alibi to cover for the fact that Bernard wanted to spend the weekend with his mistress Suzanne … and she’s on her way.

Desperate, Bernard demands that Robert pretend that Suzanne is HIS mistress so as to avoid discovery. Reluctantly, Robert agrees. But thanks to an inconvenient bit of timing, the first to arrive is Suzette (Jen Shepard), the Cordon Bleu chef sent by Bon Appetit. Robert convinces a confused Suzette to pretend to be his mistress, leading to a VERY confused and VERY angry Bernard upon his return. Meanwhile, Suzanne (Michelle Weatherbee) shows up and is immediately thrown into the kitchen – after all, SOMEONE has to be the cook, right?

And then, you better believe some hijinks ensue. People are in and out, each adding their own bits of confused deceit to the mix. The alibis evolve and revolve out of control, with each person possessing just enough of the puzzle to leap to some unfortunate conclusions. Chaos reigns as they try to fit what they know into the big picture. They try … and they hilariously fail.

I LOVE a good farce. Love it. I love the bubbly, cranked-to-11 energy of it all. And this is undeniably a good one. It is an absolute whirlwind, a perpetual motion machine of mayhem. The dialogue is a rapid-fire delight and the physicality is fearlessly funny. These are all people of questionable character, people possessed of an inherent selfishness. Seeing them trying to dig themselves out of their respective holes and succeeding only in descending ever deeper – it’s just a joy.

Is the script a little on the lighter side? Absolutely, but in this case, that relative insubstantiality is a feature, rather than a bug. That frothiness is part of the appeal – it’s a show that simply seeks to entertain. It’s all about the laughs.

And does it ever deliver.

The one thing that a show like “Don’t Dress for Dinner” absolutely has to have is a strong ensemble. Without the right combination of talent and chemistry, a farce such as this can’t help but stumble. It really is analogous to a machine – if a single cog is out of sync, the entire thing breaks down and grinds to a halt.

Happily, it’s smooth sailing with this crew; there’s a particular energy you notice with a tight farcical ensemble, and this group has it. LaBree oozes smarmy charm as the would-be lothario Bernard; there’s a charismatic slipperiness to him that is rendered all the funnier when the cracks in the veneer inevitably appear. Varney brings out a manic fearfulness that comes in waves, painting a vivid picture of a man who knows he’s in over his head but can only hang on for dear life. The two of them are a great pairing, each constantly seeking (and finding) the perfect energy against which to balance the other.

Shepard as Suzette is a comedic dynamo, rocketing into every scene with an incredible energy. She leans hard into the broad weirdness of every situation, displaying an impeccable sense of the joyful absurdity of each moment. Paige’s upper lip remains comically stiff throughout, even as her conflicted feelings of lust and anger roll through her. There’s a brittle sharpness to her, an iciness that occasionally runs blazing hot. Weatherbee embodies a wonderfully awkward confusion while also projecting an elegant dignity that makes her comic beats all the more effective. John Siedenberg also makes a late (and hilariously outsized) appearance; I won’t tell you more, but just know that he is worth the wait.

Every single one of these people elicited at least one no-fooling gutbuster of a laugh from me (and everyone else in the place, it seemed). Their ability to deliver at a dizzying pace is both impressive and incredibly effective.

Designer Patrick Rizzotti’s set is a wonderfully mod vision of farcical functionality, colorful and multi-leveled and festooned with doors. It looks great and still manages to allow for the complicated traffic patterns inherent to this sort of show. Jess Fialko’s lighting design is a perfect complement to the scenic goings-on, lending a bright sharpness to the proceedings that suits the style. Kevin Koski’s costumes are lovely as always, offering a vision of sophistication with just the right amount of quirkiness. Sound designer Sean McGinley and properties designer Meredith Perry execute their respective tasks nicely as well.

Again, I love a good farce. And “Don’t Dress for Dinner” is definitely a good one, driven by a phenomenal cast that is somehow even greater than the sum of its already considerably talented parts. It’s a fun and funny good time, one that might help alleviate the winter blues.

All in all, the farce is strong with this one.

Last modified on Tuesday, 04 February 2020 05:55


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