Directed by Robin Armstrong
Set Design – Clare Floyd DeVries
Lighting Design – John Leach
Costume Design – Robin Armstrong
Sound Design – David H.M. Lambert
Properties Design – Meredith Hinton and Nicole Hull
Stage Manager – Sarah Salazar
CAST in order of appearance:
Randy Pearlman – Irving Bubbalowe
Christopher Curtis – Mickey McCall
Jessi Little – Honey Bubbalowe
Eric Dobbins – Frank Plunkett
David H.M. Lambert – Alfonse “Noodles” Feghetti
Shane Strawbridge – Shirley
Morgan McClure – Veronica Snook
Brad Stephens – Constable Hamilton X. Effing
Photos were taken by Leah Layman
Reviewed Performance 10/25/2013
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The year is 1932, the place Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. Investing all of their money into this venture, Irving Bubbalowe and his daughter, Honey, are about to open their gourmet restaurant at one of the largest tourist and vacation spots on either side of the border. The pièce de résistance will be their star attraction, one Francois LaPlouffe, the internationally renowned opera-singing chef, coming all the way from France.
However, Monsieur LaPlouffe has suddenly . . . poofed, leaving the restaurant without someone to cook for the grand opening guests that evening. Add one unemployed chef looking for work, two heaping dollops of Chicago gangsters moving a huge shipment of prohibition booze, and a dash of their bumbling accomplice. Spice it up with a hot on the trail immigration officer and a measured cup of Royal Canadian Mountie and you have all the ingredients necessary to serve up a hilarious farcical comedy like Too Many Cooks.
The playwriting team of Marcia Kash and Douglas Hughes has joined up on several occasions to pen comical murder mysteries. Ms. Kash, while beginning her career as an actress, has forayed more into playwriting than Mr. Hughes, writing numerous plays for theatre and radio in Canada. Hughes has thirty three years as an actor for stage, television, radio and film in Canada and the U.S. He spent sixteen seasons at the Shaw and Stratford Festivals and began playwriting in 1991 with Ms. Kash. Too Many Cooks premiered in Ontario in 2003 and only premiered in the U.S. in late 2011. And from The Times of India website, I found that it has reached all the way over there with a production in Nagpur.
And why shouldn’t this comedy be performed in India – laughter is a language understood the world over and this particular plot would work in any country or locale. Too Many Cooks is a theatre company favorite to produce, probably for its non-stop action, clever play on words and well-scripted characters. Kash and Hughes have fun playing with characters’ names and places as another level of farce. In this play, the restaurant owner’s name, Bubbalowe, might be a play on words for Buffalo, NY, a city honing in on the Fall’s tourism trade. Constable Hamilton X. Effing’s last name is used with distain in sentences like “Effing this” and “Effing that”. Head gangster, Alfonse Feghetti has been given the nickname “Noodles” . . . as in spaghetti . . . get it? And the cleverness goes on and on.
Under the direction of Robin Armstrong, she and Circle Theatre have assembled a well-balanced ensemble of actors, talent-wise. Usually in these types of comedies, only one or two actors truly understand the timing and nuances of farce and carry the most weight of the production. The entire cast of Too Many Cooks not only got the nuances and subtle laugh points of the script but their precise timing through some pretty complexly-choreographed bits, the variety of their vocal changes, inflections and accents (mostly mock), and the amount of sheer physical dexterity from each actor kept the audience startled, guessing, laughing and thoroughly entertained.
Christopher Curtis as Mickey McCall, the warehouse employee selling the illegal liquor, ably portrayed the two-bit crook with a master plan. No type casting here, he played the bumbling part well, and because his body movements had a flexible, rubbery quality, his character should have been the one called “Noodles”.
The name Veronica Snook sounds like a sultry private detective and Morgan McClure came close to matching that description. Her thick wavy hair, constantly pushed back, reminded me of the famed film actress of the 40’s, Veronica Lake . . . and a snook is a fish so . . . . do you think . . . .? McClure was all high energy and wide-awake exuberance to play this “gonna get her man” officer. While Snook wasn’t on stage long enough to fully appreciate her, McClure’s scene with Constable Effing, especially their comedic timing and physical interactions (Oh!) together were well done and brought out Snook’s more feminine side, all to gales of laughter.
Honey Bubbalowe . . . sounds like Honey Boo-Boo . . . no, too early . . . is the fast-scheming daughter who, in trying to help her father not lose his money, starts the whole crazy ball of fabricated stories and identities rolling, and Jessi Little kept up with her character’s antics every bit of the way. Little is a physical actress, able to act and react on a dime and this play certainly put her through the paces. Besides being physically adept, her body movements and voice changed into several mock characters in an instant. Each had their own identity and I appreciated how Little kept them clearly separate, never rushing so fast that they became muddied. She also made Honey an intelligent, always one-step-ahead character to play off the others, and that made her acting all the more enjoyable.
Constable Hamilton X. Effing is the type of Royal Canadian Mountie we all want to see onstage, the Dudley Do Right of our youth, the Sgt. Preston of the Yukon from television, the Due South of . . . the north. Brad Stephens was all that and more, along with his trusted horse Rosie. Always pulling his uniform into place, Stephens made Effing the forthright, upstanding, tee totaling officer he is supposed to be. In a farce such as Too Many Cooks, that kind of character only leads to hilarity and Stephens brought it in style. His suave good looks didn’t hurt any but it was his physicality and heroic stoicism, even through all the character’s bumbles, that made him the perfect actor for the role. In a drunken scene (no spoiler) written with unrealistic pace, Stephens was able to keep it flowing evenly so the audience could believe his actions and so made it all work like a classic comedy piece.
Speaking of comedy pieces, the duo of Shane Strawbridge and David H.M. Lambert worked as though they’d played the old nightclub circuit for years. Comparing them to Abbott and Costello or Martin and Lewis might be a bit of a stretch but not by much. Their natural syncopation and timing together was glorious to watch. They had a little vocal bit they used mainly on exits, and without looking at each other each was perfectly timed and performed as if one. Both men of some stature, their physicality was enough to put menacing heft to their characterizations. Lambert was the quintessential mobster, full of guff and swagger, his voice the stereotypical dialect of lower class Chicago. Lambert wisely let the script lead the comedy and so played his role more low key and as realistically as could be expected for such a farce. Strawbridge amazed me with his against character and subtly funny movements. The slow turn around a small table, delicately touching the back of the chair, his deliberate, slow stage crosses, and the way he quietly and deftly kept his boss’s temper in check, were all like ballet. Strawbridge maintained a steady, nonchalant facial expression throughout most of the play, like a seasoned nightclub doorman who wasn’t about to let you in. He too had that familiar character actor gangster dialect, and together Lambert and Strawbridge didn’t have to play for the laughs – the laughs came naturally and often.
It is here I will have to admit that I might actually be stalking Eric Dobbins. After seeing him in The 39 Steps, I have made it a point to see him each time I knew he was in a play. One of only a handful of actors in the area who do this style of theatre well, Dobbins is a master of physical comedy, the old I Love Lucy, physical kind. His pratfalls, rapid turns, door slamming on face sight gags, and his agility and impeccable timing were all magically delivered and wonderfully entertaining. He too could change characters and accents in an instant and as Frank Plunkett, the out of work chef made French maestro, every one of his talents was put to the test and he passed with comedic high colors. As with Jessi Little, Dobbins has to shift characters to keep up with the ever-changing scenarios of the fabricated stories and keep the gangsters off the trail. Dobbins comes out of the kitchen as LaPlouffe, goes back in as an undertaker, back out again as Plunkett, and his every vocal change, his every gesture and facial expression cleanly denoted who is was portraying, helping the audience keep up with the charade. Plunkett is an Everyman who walks into an unnatural set of circumstances. That style of comedy is classic and Dobbins played it to classic perfection.
As Irving Bubbalowe, Randy Pearlman brought me straight back to the TV shows I used to watch with my parents, the old black and white comedies of Sid Caesar, Milton Berle and Carl Reiner. Carol Burnett brought that style of comedy back years later. But who first came to mind when I saw Pearlman onstage was Jackie Gleason. Both men of some substance, Pearlman’s mannerisms, gestures and frantic nature was pure, old-time comedy at its finest. His physical ability to jump up on the bar counter, run around the stage, in and out of the doors and doorways, of which there are five of course, was truly astounding. Pearlman never let up the frantic pace of the restaurant owner in trouble with the mob and the law. His voice inflections were ever-changing and hilarious. His character had some instantaneous changes as well but Pearlman kept Bubbalowe close underneath them, the main source of all his comedic scenes. Seeing how he looked by the curtain call, one could easily tell how hard Pearlman was working onstage and his performance was a huge homage to the great comedians of the past.
Clare Floyd DeVries used amber/ochre/mahogany tones for her design of the restaurant’s bar/lounge room. Painted detailing on the bar front and the door to the dining room resembled Art Deco/Art Nouveau inlaid wood. Two small round tables with an odd assortment of straight-back chairs, a cabinet record player and a stack of wooden cases filled out the space with the expected stemmed and tumbler glassware on shelves behind the bar. Through the doorway to the entrance was a picture window overlooking a section of Niagara Falls which looked to be a combination of photograph and painting. John Leach’s lighting scheme used generic, even amber tones across the entire stage.
Costumes came from several time periods, Mickey McCall opening the play in modern coveralls and work boots. Men wore suspendered pants and white shirts, striped or tweed suits and, of course, the red jacket, side-striped black pants, high boots and Mountie hat. Both women wore trim-waisted dresses and Mary Jane heeled shoes.
Several pistols were used in the play, some loaded and some not. Whiskey bottles, which looked much more like wine bottles, came out of the cases and several trays of food came out of the kitchen. One well-placed and filled punch bowl found itself the center of several comedic scenes.
I was so pleased with the sound effects by H.M. Lambert because one of my pet peeves in theatre is to have the sound come from a different place than the object making it. Here, the gun shots were live or sounded as though they were, the record playing came from the cabinet, the bottle crashing came from the drop chute and so on. The effects were clear, precise, well-balanced volume-wise and a great asset to the play. How completely refreshing.
Most important for me was the level of intelligent humor in this farcical comedy. Farce can be played over-the-top with its only intent being to go deep on the laughs. In this production, the laughs were there because of smart character choices, well-rehearsed and choreographed bits and the actors’ ability to take the comedy seriously, all from Robin Armstrong’s deft direction. The heightened energy lasted almost to the end, the script bogging down some in the second act and stretching out the ending long after its climactic scene. That said, Too Many Cooks is a great example of its theatrical genre and a splendid way to watch eight actors finely adept at their craft.
TOO MANY COOKS
230 W. 4th Street
Fort Worth, TX 76102
Runs through November 16th
Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday/Saturday at 8:00 pm and Saturday at 3:00 pm.
Tickets range from $20.00 - $35.00 depending on the day of performance. Senior, student, military, KERA, Press Pass, S.T.A.G.E. and group discounts are available.
For information and to purchase tickets, go to www.circletheatre.com or call the box office at 1-817-877-3040. You may also go in person to the Circle Theatre box office at 230 W. 4th Street, between Houston and Throckmorton, in downtown Fort Worth.
**A note – the Sundance Square area of Fort Worth is under heavy construction with street and lane closures and parking at a premium. Circle Theatre has complimentary valet parking around the corner on Throckmorton. If you pass the theatre on one-way 4th Street, make a wide right turn on one-way Throckmorton and the valet station is on the left-hand side. This will save you time and stress from driving around and around needlessly.