The exhilaration of chaos: Teatro revives the screwball Skirts On Fire as their 2018 season finale

(clockwise) Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Paula Humby, Louise Lambert, Kendra Connor in Skirts on Fire, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby

By Liz Nicholls,

In a scene that might have been lifted direct from the Teatro La Quindicina archive, a playwright and a leading man were in a tiny Strathcona cocktail bar last week discussing the essence of screwball comedy.

“The actors and the characters and the audience are having the same amount of fun,” says the former. “But for different reasons,” says the latter. They smile.

It’s happy hour. And happiness is on the minds of Stewart Lemoine and Andrew MacDonald-Smith. So, not coincidentally, is Skirts on Fire, the fizzy Stewart Lemoine screwball comedy last seen by audiences in 2003. In this revival, opening Thursday on the Varscona stage. the finale of Teatro’s 2018 season, MacDonald-Smith inherits the role originated by Jeff Haslam; he plays Alton Doane, breezy instigator of a literary hoax in the magazine publishing world of ‘50s Manhattan.

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Andrew MacDonald-Smith in Skirts On Fire, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

It is a caper that, once set in motion on a larky impulse, will escalate in complication, camouflage, counterfeit, and outright lies, till a moment of champagne convergence in “the smallest hotel room in New York.” Which, if you’ve ever been to the Big Apple and tried to open the closet door in your hotel room without moving the bed, is an impressive thought in itself. 

Although he’d decided on the cast (a typically Teatro practice), Lemoine remembers that “I had only the vaguest notion of the play … a lot of lying women maybe?” when he picked out a title for a new Fringe screwball in the summer of 2000.  And as for the plot, with its literary scam, “I’d just read Catcher in the Rye,” by the notoriously mysterious and reclusive author J.D. Salinger, who refused either to be edited or have his photo on dust jackets.

And Lemoine remembers, too, the image of “someone walking into a cafe with no chairs” and thinking there’d be a reason for the surreal sight of people sitting on cushions on the floor, with subsequent exchanges on the subject. “It’s that kind of comedy!” grins MacDonald-Smith, the Teatro star whose real-life quick wit seems entirely suitable for Lemoinian comedy. 

And, after all, Lemoine has alluded to the notion of “falling into an adventure” in discussing other screwballs, like his 2001 On The Banks of the Nut. And that’s exactly what happens to Porter Lawrence (Ron Pederson), a prim and circumspect English teacher who writes “didactic anecdotes for people who are 12.”

As Skirts On Fire opens, he’s having a coffee at the Sweet ’N’ Low Diner, getting continuously outfaced by the sassy waitress (we can use the word ‘waitress’, it’s 1958) Shirley (Louise Lambert), waiting for someone. Suddenly, he’s meeting Hartwood Keane, the infamously cranky recluse who wrote St. Margaret’s Lap, “the most anthologized short story in the middle third of the 20th century.” Soon thereafter Porter Lawrence will find himself in costume. And, well, one deception leads to another…. 

Which brings us back to Lemoine’s attraction to the form (shared enthusiastically by MacDonald-Smith), which has given us such frothy enterprises as Hopscotch Holiday (later re-worked as Whiplash Weekend) and Vidalia, a spy caper set in motion by a simple lie about a name, and involving identical suitcases. In the summer of 2001, a year after Skirts On Fire’s debut at the Fringe, Lemoine had a new screwball in the works. But when when tragedy struck on September 11, he knew that it couldn’t be set in New York, or even mention that great city. So Lemoine went rural, with On The Banks Of The Nut, in which the eccentric proprietress of a rustic guest lodge in rural Wisconsin attends a symphony concert in Chicago and is unexpectedly transported by the posthorn solo in the third movement of Mahler’s Third.

Two years later, in Teatro’s season this time instead of at the Fringe, Skirts on Fire was back onstage. And Lemoine characters were back in New York, propelled through a ’50s screwball with an elaborate literary hoax, involving two authors and the Feminine Home Digest, a magazine “at the forefront of current thought.”

“Farce is all about finding comedy in someone’s struggle,” proposes MacDonald-Smith, an in-demand triple-threat leading man (and Teatro associate) who’s been in wide spectrum of farces, screwballs, romantic comedies, musical comedies, romantic musical comedies of all bents. 

Did I say busy? MacDonald-Smith’s past season began with a very funny turn as the boatman in the Citadel’s Shakespeare in Love here and in Winnipeg, followed by three months in the Sherlockian spoof Baskerville at Stage West in Calgary, a couple of months singing close harmony in Forever Plaid at the Mayfield, a trip to Italy and England with his mom, time in Toronto and Stratford.

“I’ve slept in 20 beds so far this year! And no, not in that way!” he amends cheerfully of a life plot that sounds a bit careening comedy in itself. And it doesn’t stop. Next up is Neil Grahn’s The Comedy Company, premiering next month in the Shadow Theatre season, followed by the Citadel/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s Matilda here and in Winnipeg. And meanwhile, there’s debonair Alton Doane, for whom the romantic and literary are inextricably linked. 

Andrea House, Ron Pederson, Kendra Connor, Andrew MacDonald-Smith in Skirts On Fire, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

Like farces, screwballs are built on teeter-y architecture of deceptions and misapprehensions that threaten chaos at every moment, yes. But in farces, as Lemoine has said, “people are having the worst day of their life.” And in screwballs, “people never stop having fun along the way,” as MacDonald-Smith puts it. He calls it “smooth fun, ‘fake it till you make it’.”

Says  Lemoine, “everyone’s smart and articulate. And while the stakes might be high for everyone, somebody’s really enjoying it.” Alton Doane, the suave “gadabout” who sets the Skirts On Fire plot in motion in order to make life more, well, interesting, is one of those. He’s no brooder on the consequences. “He’s unwilling to think about that,” laughs MacDonald-Smith. “Diligence is not his forte.”

“Everyone is lying to someone about something. The crux is figuring out who knows the most….” says Lemoine. “There is a character who know everything that’s going on. But people are lying to people who know more than they do,” says MacDonald-Smith.

Canadian playwrights who create original screwballs aren’t a dime a dozen, to say the least; for one thing, the form is dauntingly intricate. Lemoine has his favourites in the classic screwball canon. There are the Kaufman and Hart stage comedies (You Can’t Take It With You), of course. But perhaps the apotheosis of the screwball is to be found on the big screen in the Hollywood of the ‘30s and ‘40s.

Like MacDonald-Smith, Lemoine loves Bringing Up Baby, the 1938 Howard Hawks screwball involving a palaeontologist (Cary Grant), a kook (Katherine Hepburn), a dinosaur bone and a pet leopard. And The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942), which ricochets between New York and Florida, is another fave. “It’s almost ridiculously plot-less…. The stakes are high, but I’d never say the characters understood exactly what they are!”

Words to live by, in a screwball comedy. Complications escalate. And Lemoine and MacDonald-Smith are delighted by the thought.


Skirts On Fire

Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina

Written and directed by: Stewart Lemoine

Starring: Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Ron Pederson, Louise Lambert, Kendra Connor, Andrea House, Paula Humby

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Thursday through Oct. 13



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