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'Arsenic & OId Lace' by Joseph Kesselring. Produced by Scarborough Theatre Guild

Now onstage until July 20 at Scarborough Village Theatre, 3600 Kingston Road

Credit: Julie Adams Photography L-R: Scott Baker and Kai Novak

Joe Szekeres

“American theatre chestnut play arrives at Scarborough’s Village Theatre. How does it fare for a twenty-first-century theatre crowd?”

There’s a line about drama and theatre critics in Joseph Kesselring’s theatre chestnut of a play that still makes me smile:

“Please don’t think hard of the drama critic. Somebody has to do those things.”

With the theatre industry undergoing significant changes over the past five years, the role of the reviewer/critic/blogger has not remained static. Instead, it has evolved into a crucial component. I am currently in an online theatre workshop exploring the concept of equitable criticism. The focus has shifted from mere critique to fostering a dialogue through responses and feedback.

I intend to do this with my feedback piece on Scarborough Theatre Guild’s opening night production of ‘Arsenic & Old Lace,’ now onstage at the Scarborough Village Theatre.

I hope it becomes a conversation piece and starter for back and forth discussion.

Opening on Broadway from 1941 to 1944, the story is set in Abbey (Carolyn Kelso-Bell) and Martha (Jill Tonus) Brewster’s dark, grandiose house in a Brooklyn, New York section. The Brewster sisters are dotty, eccentric, and loveable when we first see them. They have made it their life's work to comfort lonely old men. What these sweet little old sisters do to help becomes a unique and somewhat bizarre premise that sets the stage for a farcical look at American life back in 1941.

Some whacko characters live at Martha and Abbey’s, while many come knocking on the door. The Brewsters’ nephew Teddy (Brad Finch) lives with the ladies. Teddy believes he is Theodore Roosevelt. Each time he runs up the stairs at the house, Teddy believes he is running up San Juan Hill and shouts ‘Chaaaarrrrggggeeee’. Nobody bats an eye at this behaviour.

Then there is Teddy’s brother and the Brewster sisters’ second nephew, Mortimer (Kai Novak). Mortimer is a pompous drama critic who writes for the newspaper and sometimes enjoys ripping plays apart. Mortimer becomes engaged to his fiancée Elaine (Kiran Bardial), much to her father's hesitation, Dr. Harper (Paul Coady). Why? His future son-in-law promotes the theatre, a shameful task (another comical reason why the play is a farce).

Then, a third brother and nephew, Jonathan (Scott Baker), returns home to the Brewster household with revenge on his mind.

Meanwhile, some dopey police officers and medical personnel show up at the house at all hours, which leads to bedlam, chaos, and, most importantly, fun because it is a farce. Great comedy involves truth to make us laugh in the face of tragedy and sadness.

Can ‘Arsenic & Old Lace’ still live up to the theatrical standards of the twenty-first century?

It all depends on the director’s vision.

Jeremy Henson and his production team have a considerable task of ensuring they have done justice to ‘Arsenic’ in presenting what it is intended to be – a farce.

And have they?

Well…

Let’s have a conversation.

Visually, the production is quite a ravenous feast for the eyes, thanks to Jackie McCowan’s gorgeous two-level set design that fills the Village Theatre space for maximum effect. McCowan also utilizes the stairs at the side of the three-quarter auditorium setting to show how large the Brewster house is. Much attention to detail has been paid in creating this mammoth setting, right down to Heather Hyslop’s props of fine bone china on the dining room table. Andra Bradish’s costume designs are lovely recreations of colours and fabrics from the early 1940s. Without spoiling the plot, Darlene Thomas’ makeup design on Scott Baker is terrific. Chris Northey’s design effectively captures the sometimes-eerie lighting that helps create the incredible and intense tension needed for this theatre chestnut of a farce to work.

On this opening night, the auditorium, which is usually air-conditioned, was dreadfully warm. At first, I thought what a clever idea director Henson had—to have the audience vicariously experience the Brewster house's overpowering heat. Later, I learned that was not intentional, as the air conditioning was not working. For future audiences, rest assured the auditorium will be air-conditioned for comfort.

Jeremy Henson wants audiences to laugh uproariously throughout the approximately two-and-a-half-hour running time because ‘Arsenic’ must be played outlandishly while never veering out of control.

This opening night is hit-and-miss under Henson’s usually focused and astute direction. Several key moments that should have left the audience in stitches of laughter because the play is a farce went right over our heads. Several opportunities for spot-on timing of verbal cues are missed, which is a shame. The humour at that moment propels the story forward in its madcap, zany plot unravelling.

‘Arsenic’ is an ensemble effort, yet Scott Baker, as Jonathan Brewster, comes dangerously close to stealing the show as the revenge-seeking Boris Karloff doppelganger. Baker’s initial entrance in Act One is undoubtedly worth the ticket price—pure comedy gold. He and Neil Kulin’s Dr. Einstein are a perfect duo match. Kulin gets to showcase an admirable accent, as it does come across naturally for the most part. There were a few moments in the second act where I had difficulty hearing Kulin as the accent was getting in the way of the dialogue, possibly because it was getting unbearably warm in the second act.

In his appearance near the end, Lorin Beiko’s sturdy stature as Office O’Hara and the surprise he reveals when he shows up at the Brewster house is spot on. Likewise, Alan Maynes’ brief wink and nudge appearance at the end as Mr. Witherspoon with the Brewster sisters responding uniquely in kind perfectly captures the fact that ‘Arsenic’ remains a theatrical farce.

Brad Finch’s Teddy Brewster has several key moments that put a smile on my face. Finch’s eyes capture perfectly that he is ‘not all there.’ Nevertheless, I hoped to hear that horn bellow throughout the auditorium as that’s part of the needed humour. Hopefully, Finch can keep practicing before showtime to ensure that he can blow that horn with tremendous force.

Kiran Badial's Elaine remains girlishly sweet in trying to understand the comedy behind what she might be getting herself into when marrying Mortimer. Kai Novak’s Mortimer comes across as a pompous blowhard who honestly does care about the welfare of his aunts. But Novak also misses a few visual cues that don’t make the moments as amusing as they should be. Yet there was one moment when he walked in the front door at the appropriate time a character said something on stage. The audience roared with laughter because they got the joke.

We need to see more of that.

I wanted to see more oddball eccentricities in Carolyn Kelso-Bell and Jill Tonus as Abbey and Martha. Those eccentricities are budding, but the two ladies must pick up on a few more. For example, when they come clean with Mortimer about what’s hidden in the window seat bench, there are terrific looks between the two ladies and some excellent wide-eyed responses.

Again, I’d like to see more of that as an audience member.

Might it be possible for Kelso-Bell and Tonus to show us some differences in their physicality? For example, both ladies appear to walk the same. Might one be able to be on tiptoes as she crosses a room? Weird, different, true, but that’s the point behind these little old ladies.

A Final Thought: The Guild’s ‘ARSENIC AND OLD LACE’ is just about there as a farce. It’ll get there as performances continue.”

Running time: approximately two hours and 20 minutes with one interval/intermission.

The production runs until July 20 at the Scarborough Village Theatre, 3600 Kingston Road. For tickets: theatrescarborough.com or call the Box Office (416) 267-2929.

SCARBOROUGH THEATRE GUILD presents
‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ by Joseph Kesselring
Produced by Darlene Thomas
Directed by Jeremy Henson
Stage Managers: Teresa Bakker and June Watkins

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