Oh, Dad. Oh, brother!
A comic bird, heavy on the dark meat, Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad gives us a little family that makes the Addams brood look like the Waltons. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste, Oh, Dad is an exotic meal, but certainly one worth sampling.
Playwright Arthur Kopit created a twisted world for his play, subtitled “a pseudoclassical tragi-farce in a bastard French tradition.” The tropes of Ionesco and other Absurdist writers are upended by Kopit, taken lightly, and provide variations on the theme of dysfunctional families, suppressed sexuality and tropical vacations.
What is the meaning of this, you ask? I could offer another potential subtitle for Oh, Dad: “Pardon Me if My Freudian Slip is Showing.”
Wealthy widow and world traveler, Madame Rosepettle arrives at Havana’s Hotel Libre with a mountain of luggage and her husband and only son in tow. Actually, her spouse is technically among the luggage since he is transported in a coffin, which makes perfect sense since the Mrs. not only had him killed but stuffed. Madame Rosepettle could be described as a careful blend of black widow, queen bee, Joan Crawford, and Attila the Hun. On the prowl for a replacement husband, she sets up shop in the Cuban hotel with her favorite pet and floral arrangements. The psycho-comic overtones and man-eating symbolism abound since her pet is a graceful, cat-eating piranha fish and her favorite plants are instrumentalist Venus fly traps. (More about them later.)
As for Mrs. Rosepettle’s only offspring, Jonathan is a psychoanalyst’s dream. The emasculated youth is momma’s pride and joy, can barely speak without a stammer, and may have taken lessons from Norman Bates on how to deal with women.
Kopit sets up the improbable spectacle of Oedipal proportions as a careful balance of light and dark. Madame Rosepettle orders the small army of bellboys into a frothy mess, only hinting at her desire to land a new, wealthy husband. Jonathan’s first awkward encounter with the attractive babysitter, Rosalie, sets up a high stakes second date where innocence is severely tested.
Director Tyler Herman was inspired to push the daring limits of Kopit’s play. His cast is more than up to the task, starting with Robin Reck as the cold-hearted and imperious Madame Rosepettle. Reck has a commanding bark and a way with a withering look. During her date with the susceptible and rattled Commodore Roseabove – played with restraint by Manolo Santalla – she is able to conjure up the sex appeal of a venomous cobra to chilling effect.
As Jonathan, Tony Strowd is a bundle of nerves and pent up emotion, showing a man-child torn by his loyalty to Madame Rosepettle and curiosity about the wicked world from which he has been shielded. Strowd inhabits two sides of a caged and wounded bird with skill.
Taking up the mantle of seductress wolf hiding in Sandra Dee’s clothing, Emery Erin handles the Gidget-to-Ann-Margret-range of feminine wiles with ease. It may have been my imagination, but I swear she started out looking like Audrey Hepburn and transformed into a young Sophia Loren before my eyes, all within her two pivotal scenes.
Seeing the production at the Gunston Arts Center, I can see why Oh, Dad would have flourished Off-Broadway in the early 1960s. The uptight 50s were transforming into an edgier time. Kopit’s script combines light comedy and dark wit with the frivolous. At American Century, director Tyler Herman not only embraces the duality of the ridiculous and the dangerous, he one-ups it. I won’t spoil the juiciest theatrical morsels, but here’s a taste: Madame Rosepettle’s beloved carnivorous plants are brought to life with sardonic glee and jazzy riffs by musicians Steve Przybylski and Vaughn Irving. Their original background score provides accompaniment that is both loopy and ominous and fits the show like a glove; and their fly trap costumes – designed by Jacy Barber – must be seen to be believed.
Barber’s work on the band’s costumes is only surpassed by the inspired and fanciful costume and make-up for the scene-stealing anthropomorphic piranha, Rosalinda, played with energetic panache by Anna Lynch. Another brilliantly realized twist by the director, Lynch’s giggly, cat-eating fish further enhances the Absurdist touches Kopit mixed in to his dark farce.
Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad
Closes April 12, 2014
American Century Theater at
Gunston Arts Center II
2700 S. Lang Street
1 hour, 40 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $32 – $40
Thursdays thru Sundays
Special mention must also be made of the gaggle of bellboys who interact so memorably with Madame Rosepettle and Jonathan. What could have been a group of generic background players and props handlers here is transformed into a quintet of quirky, light-footed minions. Brian David Clarke, Chema Pineda-Fernández, Andrew Quilpa, Manolo Santalla, and Jorge A. Silva certainly prove there are no small parts in the theatre.
The American Century Theater has dusted off another rarely produced title for a notably menacing slice of the avant garde. It would be absurd to miss it.
Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad by Arthur Kopit . Directed by Tyler Herman . Featuring Robin Reck, Tony Strowd, Emery Erin, Manolo Santalla, Anna Lynch, Jorge A. Silva, Brian David Clarke, Andrew Quilpa, and Chema Pineda-Fernández.
Music Director and Composer Steve Przybylski . Vaughn Irving performs with Przybylski as the Venus Fly Traps . Producer Ed Moser . Assistant Director: Annalisa Dias-Mandoly . Stage Manager Sarah Kamins . Sound Designer Thomas Sowers . Lighting Design Jason Aufdem-Brinke . Costume Design Jacy Barber . Scenic Designer and Artist Katie Wertz . Props Designer Kevin Laughon . Produced by American Century Theater. Reviewed by Jeff Walker.