By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
There they stand before us, seven closed doors.
A tidy pink and cream apartment (designer: Whittyn Jason). A vision of domestic harmony: orderly arrangements of size-gradated kitchen canisters, a slice of cake under a glass dome, a nearly complete set of encyclopedias on a shelf over the fridge. Enter a woman with the final volume, the v to z’s, tucked under her arm and a smile of triumph on her face.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well…. Those doors, my friends, are the world-wide theatrical sign of farce — of fate being tempted and riot being incited, comically speaking. The first sound you hear from the stage in The Fiancée, an exhilarating new farce by Holly Lewis premiering at the Citadel and directed by Daryl Cloran, is a door slam, the first of many in an evening of fun in the theatre.
What follows this opening gambit is spiralling complication in the lives of Lucy (Helen Belay) and her sister Rose (Patricia Cerra). It’s 1945 in Edmonton. The war has ended; the men are coming home. And Rose, the sensible working woman of the pair, is about to discover, incrementally, that her sis, a sweet-natured would-be actress who can’t say no, has said yes a few — quite a few — too many times.
This congenital yay-sayer has gotten herself engaged to not one man, not two, but three, as they left for World War II. And, wouldn’t you know — farces are as rigorous about inevitability as Greek tragedy — all three are arriving back on the same day. Which is the very day the rent is due. And it’s in a building reserved exclusively for the respectably married, run by a rule-bound new tyrant landlady Ms. Crotch (Lora Brovold). And, by the way, the ever-pliable Lucy has just said yes to a new vacuum cleaner, and forked over the rent money.
In farce the percussion track of doors being knocked on and slammed is the sound track of the ante being upped. Buried, and not too deeply, in the escalating lunacy of every farce, is a simple but profound insight about life, my friends. You’ve suspected it lately, who wouldn’t?, and it’s true: the orderly universe is an illusion. There is a thin line between order and chaos. The intricate architecture of farces, like our lives, is a teetering affair, built on quicksand. Mayhem is just an impromptu lie, a miscue, a mistaken identity, a preposterous disguise, a pratfall, a slammed door or an opened one, away.
The Fiancée is a deluxe piece of farce engineering, with an unusual premise and feminist buttresses. And it’s dressed to the nines by costume designer Leona Brausen, a specialist in ’40s visuals. It’s a post-war world where women like Rose and the formidable Ms. Crotch are wearing the pants (and look great in them). And they’ve had a taste of being in charge. “What happened?” Lucy asks Rose, who’s just been fired from her factory job. “Men happened,” she says grimly of the unwelcome return to a tired status quo.
Cloran’s highly entertaining production starts fast (possibly a little too fast) and gets faster. Rigorously timed as it is, it crucially never loses the farcical sense of careening physical comedy being improvised on the spot. That’s the great attraction of the near-miss (which appeals to the dark side of our human nature; we should be ashamed of ourselves). The cast, divided between the women who are the active instigators and the men who are the hapless satellites in orbit, all deliver nimble comic performances.
It’s Rose, the thorny one, who takes charge of chaos control. And in a terrific comic performance from Cerra, we see her backed into ever-tighter corners, having to improvise ever more acrobatically on revelations from a sister who congenitally tells people what they want to hear. Rose is the smartest person in the room, the problem-solver, always thinking, always on the edge of exasperation, always having to act against her better judgment and watching herself, appalled. And Cerra captures it all to a T.
Belay, who has a smile that could melt icing off a cake (her favourite crisis food) in a snowstorm, is a hoot as the sweetly dazed and daffy Lucy. When caught out by her sister she throws up her hands: “What could I say? What could I do?” The obverse side of making the kindly choice is taking the line of least resistance. And Lucy is a chronic hedger. She’s so guileless she’s been working at Eaton’s without being hired, a tale of non-employment that occasions a very funny shaggy dog story. The sight of Lucy attempting to hide in the fridge is one of the lingering images of the evening.
I loved Brovold as the acidic landlady who continually peels the grapes of wrath with her mordant wit. She has the snarly presence (and hair) of a ‘40s movie star, delivering grimly sardonic bytes like someone spitting out bad cashews. She is very funny.
The trio of ridiculous male characters, who must not meet, ricochet around the women getting shoved through the seven doors. Which is why it inevitably comes to pass, for example, that a rabbity man with no mechanical prowess whatsoever will be mistaken for a plumber, and later appear in a skimpy towel. That would be Manny, a meticulous list-maker played hilariously by Farren Timoteo. “I’m not really a tool guy,” he ventures. (Rose snaps “every guy’s a tool guy”).
Sheldon Elter is the adamantine soldier’s soldier. “I don’t change my mind,” he declares. “I’m a captain in the Canadian armed forces.” Tenaj Williams is handsome, swaggering Dick, “God’s gift to Edmonton,” as he says modestly of himself, while his name gets bandied about, sportingly. Rose is unimpressed. “You’re not even God’s gift to Leduc”.
One of the great appeals of The Fiancée is that woven into its barbs is a shameless affection for dumb jokes, both physical and verbal. I leave you to savour those on the spot when you see The Fiancée which I highly recommend you do. (But here’s a teeny, possibly enigmatic, hint: cake in The Fiancée is like Chekhov’s gun). In these uncertain times, there’s nothing like other people’s panic to quell your own.
Written by: Holly Lewis
Directed by: Daryl Cloran
Starring: Helen Belay, Lora Brovold, Patricia Cerra, Sheldon Elter, Farren Timoteo, Tenaj Williams
Running: through Nov. 28
Tickets and masking/vaccination requirements: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com.