Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Circle by W. Somerset Maugham

By Joe Straw

A family circle being torn apart by outside forces, or inside forces for that matter, is devastating especially when there are children involved. My family circle is broken and it is not something I’ll get over in a matter of days, weeks, months or even what’s left of my life. For me the pain is all too real, enduring, and never eases, not for one minute, not one minute.    

I read somewhere the British get a kick out of watching their fellow countrymen in misery, family squabbles, and politicians in a pickle go to the front of the line.  All that stuff just sends them over the edge with delight.

The Circle by W. Somerset Maugham directed by Jules Aaron and Produced by David Hunt Stafford at Theatre 40 is a delightful comedy.  It has a magnificent set created by Jeff G. Rack.  And it is a marvelous place to showcase actors in all their environmental glory.

This play opens at Aston–Adey, Arnold Champion-Cheney’s (Scott Facher) house in Dorset, England in the early 1930’s.  Aston–Adley is not a house, but a place nurtured by Arnold, the present homeowner and caretaker, and a current Member of Parliament.

Arnold Champion-Cheney scampers about his home searching for his wife Elizabeth (Shelby Kocee) but runs into his footman George (Fernando Aldaz).  Arnold asks George to find his wife.  But, before the footman leaves Arnold scolds the household lot for the dust that has accumulated in his otherwise perfect home.

Moments later a sumptuous houseguest, Anna (Dionne Jones), runs into Arnold.  She tells him that Elizabeth is going to have a single (tennis) with the dreamy Teddie (Ross Alden) and she is now upstairs putting on her shoes. Arnold doesn’t understand why putting on her shoes is taking so long.  Anna suggests she has other things to do (like powdering her nose).

(Thinking about love takes up a lot of time.)

Elizabeth enters wearing a beautiful summer dress (possibly not suitable for tennis).

“Damn!” – Elizabeth

“I wish you wouldn’t say that, Elizabeth.” – Arnold

“If you’re not going to say ‘Damn’ when a thing’s damnable, when are you going to say ‘Damn’? – Elizabeth

“I should have thought you could say, “’Oh, bother!’ Or something like that.” – Arnold

This is a precursor of a troubled relationship where a husband and his wife are not ever going to get along, ever.

And then Teddie enters a short while later and it looks as though something is going on between him and Elizabeth. There is casualness about their relationship that is very noticeable.     

“I think Teddie and I had better make ourselves scarce.” – Anna

Anna, sensitive about relationships around the house, is a little anxious about being there when they are expecting family relations.  

“Nonsense!  You’re both in it.  If there’s going to be any unpleasantness we want your moral support.  That’s why we asked you to come.” – Elizabeth

Arnold, in a tither, enlightens the small gathering with the news that his father, Clive (Lloyd Pedersen), has unexpectedly arrived the previous night and is now in his cottage next door.  And to make matters worse Arnold is anxious that his mother Lady Kitty (Rhonda Lord) and her husband, Lord Porteus (David Hunt Stafford) are arriving by motorcar in a few short minutes.

For Arnold this is an unexpected and unfortunate turn of events.  

This is when we learn Arnold’s backstory.  At the tender age of five, Arnold’s mother deserted him and his father.  She left them with a note pinned to her pillowcase. (Critical decisions are always made in bed.)   Arnold is now 35 years old, has not seen his mother since, and doesn’t know if he will recognize her or visa versa.  The whole situation seems rather absurd, comical, and uncomfortable, in only a fashion that is typically British.  

When Clive gets there, Elizabeth has taken the responsibility of informing Clive that she has invited Arnold’s mother Lady Kitty, and her husband Lord Porteus.

And, speaking of the devil, Clive opens the windows and threatens to jump in, but strolls through the French doors instead.  

And while pleasantries are made, Anna, Teddie, and Arnold manage to slip out of the room.  Clive notices that all have scattered to the winds and they are left alone.

“You have evidently something very disagreeable to say to me.” – Clive

“You won’t be cross with me?” – Elizabeth

“How old are you?” – Clive

“Twenty-five.” – Elizabeth

“I’m never cross with a woman under thirty.” – Clive

“Oh, then I’ve got ten years.” – Elizabeth

“Mathematics?” – Clive

“No. Paint?” – Elizabeth

Pretty, she may be, and her low mathematical reasoning is now, confirmed.

Elizabeth breaks the news Lady Catherine (Kitty) is coming, that she is staying in town, that she has been invited for lunch, and that she has also invited her husband Lord Porteus.

Elizabeth wants Clive to fill her in on the juicy tidbits of Lady Kitty’s personal life.  Clive says that in his day she was very dainty, a pretty nose, and very light on her feet but that was long ago.

“I imagine her slight and frail.” – Elizabeth

“Frail, certainly.” – Clive

And to garner further information Elizabeth asks about Lord Porteus. Clive says that he liked him and he could have been Prime Minister if he had stayed in politics.  He is also Arnold’s godfather.

“I wonder if he ever regrets.” – Clive

Clive retreats to his cottage as Teddie, who has been skulking around, enters the room. Teddie tells Elizabeth about his life in the tropics, his beachfront home, and other enticing things of his life.  And as their intercourse continues, Teddie blurts out.

“Do you know that I’m awfully in love with you?” – Teddie

Okay, so now the cats out of the bag, but there is no time because Arnold excitedly scurries into the room and tells them Lady Kitty is coming up the driveway.

And as they wait with anticipation, Lady Kitty enters.  She is heavily painted with mounds of makeup to hide the unfortunate business of age. Her grand and heavily assuming entrance with arms out stretched, as though she was parting a great-crusted salt lake is non-inspiring.  Her dress is superiorly outlandish and suited for a younger woman one-third her age.

Right away she mistakenly reaches to embrace Teddie as her son Arnold.  But, Elizabeth turns her around to the son she has not seen since the age of five.  

“And what do you think of Arnold?” – Clive

“I adore him.” – Lady Kitty

“He’s grown, hasn’t he? But then you’d expect him to do that in thirty years.” – Clive

Ouch. Sometimes subtle verbal jabs are not so subtle in Jolly Old England.

Later, after an excruciating game of cards with Lord Porteus and bickering back and forth Elizabeth finds herself alone with Teddie.

Teddie finds it hard to express his love for Elizabeth.  His tardigrade passes miss their mark.  And when he finally discovers the courage to tell her how he really feels, it is a muddled expression of love.

Notwithstanding, Elizabeth expresses her love for Teddie, and wants to run away with him.  But, she can’t leave without an explanation.  She is resolved to go to Arnold and break the news.  

Moments later Arnold rings for a cup followed by Kitty in the living area.  

“Shall I pour it out for you?” – Lady Kitty

“Thank you very much.” – Arnold

“Do you take sugar.” – Lady Kitty

Mother and son get a quiet moment together.  Lady Kitty explains she was but a small girl when she left. Clive joins them making a nice small family reunion. And later they are joined by Porteus.

Arnold is infatuated with his house and in particular Sheraton chair and wants to prove to everyone there, especially Porteus, the chair is a Sheraton.  He runs off to find a drawing in a book while Porteus enters.

Porteus say he hates Clive.  He has always hated him, and will hate him in the future.  Clive says he loves Porteus, has always loved him, and will love him in the future.  Lady Kitty calls Porteus disagreeable.

Clive tells Lady Kitty that Porteus would have been Prime Minister if she hadn’t run off with him to Italy. Kitty says that she’s the one who made the sacrifice for that man, Porteus.  She didn’t even have a bathroom.

“I’ve had to wash in a tub.” – Lady Kitty

“My poor Kitty, how you’ve suffered!” - Clive

The three of them Clive, Kitty, and Porteus battle back and forth as Arnold is flipping through the pages of the book to find an illustration of a Sheraton chair.

Porteus tells Clive that if he were Prime Minister he would have given them Western Australia or Barbados.

“Barbadoes!  Barbadoes can go to Barbadoes,” – Lady Kitty

In the argument Porteus’ teeth fall out and he runs from the room.

Lady Kitty is so mad she wants to end her relationship with Porteus and move back in with Clive.  Clive tells her he was good as a young man but is very wicked as an older one.

All right, so there is a lot going on here in this three-hour play.  Elizabeth and Arnold’s relationship is going nowhere. Teddie is having a hard time explaining to Elizabeth why she should run off with him. Lady Kitty wants to leave Porteus and move back with Clive.  Proteus fights to get back into the good graces of his wife Lady Kitty.  And Clive wants to hang out with women 25 years and younger. All of these predicaments make for a fun filled evening.

And, as is my nature, I want to speak about performances, character, and motivation.  

Scott Facher as Arnold has interesting character choices.  He is upwardly mobile as a Member of Parliament but his character seems to be stuck in the same circle as his father.  Stuck in a marriage that is going nowhere. Arnold’s hamartia is that he cares only for his stuff, his home, and has very little regard for sex.  In fact, he regards sex as an unnecessary part of his married life. Facher firmly holds on to his character choices while letting his objective fall to the wayside. There is a lot of downstage center primping and postulating without moving the character in a focused direction. His relationship with his houseguest is almost non-existent and should be examined.  Otherwise what is the point?  If his wife leaves, who’s left? Also Arnold blew enough dust off the figurine as though he were living in a mausoleum and not his clean stately manor.  Some of these were minor mistakes of opening night and hopefully things will change as the performances run its course.

Shelby Kocee plays Elizabeth with a soft manner and charm, but I think she may be giving the store away from the silent moments at the table with the puzzle. There is a reason Elizabeth invited the houseguests and the in-laws.  She’s got something up her sleeve that has yet to be discovered. Still Kocee gives a lot of deep emotional work in her performance and she is wonderful to watch.

Ross Alden plays Teddie a man how works offshore but comes back to see his true love and only her. As the character Teddie is befuddled.  He knows what he wants but he cannot come out and say it. So he is stuck until the moment he finds that his love and can tell her that he cares for her. He is slow and methodical when approaching but tests her in many ways to find if she cares for him.  Alden has a nice look and does a fine job. Sometimes his actions are “out there” when a little could go a very long way.

Lloyd Pedersen plays Clive Champion-Cheney and does a very nice job. Pedersen seems to go from one show to the next and has a delightful charm about him. But, I believe there is a lot more bite to the character.  Clive is the reason things happen they way they do.   He purposefully comes back early to see his former wife and her husband.  And, then, for no other reason to get back at the woman who cause him great pain to not only him but his son as well.  He uses his wit to get back at his former wife and the man who took her away. Charming everyone in the process.  It’s what the British do so well.

Rhonda Lord is fantastic as Lady Kitty.  She carries a certain charm about her.  She has a deep emotional commitment to the role and is delightful in many ways. She knows how to love and fight and then make up again. She is very comedic and filled with delightful expressions. I believe she needs to find a way to say "I'm sorry" to her son.  Maybe it isn’t written but should be expressed someway, somehow.  It is a very minor point in probably one of the finest and honest performances I have seen this year.

David Hunt Stafford does an admirable job as Lord Porteus. He is very funny and has an extreme emotional commitment even during his quiet moments.  He absorbs the communication given to him and releases a very fine truth, mostly love, but a very fine truth.

Fernando Aldez plays George the footman.  Each time he enters the rooms he brings something different.  It may not always work but there is a lot to be said about exploring the character, finding what works, and toss the stuff that doesn’t work. Also Aldez has a very likeable quiet charm and should do very well in this industry, with luck.

Dionne Jones plays Anna.  First of all she is stunning and has a quiet dignity about her.  As the character her objective is not clear, could not even guess as to what she wanted.  One suspects she wants Arnold but hasn’t the wear with all to take him.  The script gives clues and they are slight, so one has to make the best of those cues.  She is the first to come in contact with the man of the house. Anna rats on her female equivalent.  She digs at her unkempt character (powering her nose). She suggests the tennis player is dreamy and suggest a possible intimacy. Also, Anna is single.  She knows how to flirt and must make that obvious. In the end, she manages to get her fiddle player so she must be heading in that direction. Her actions must support the end result and doing this creatively will only add to a very nice performance.

I keep running into plays directed by Jules Aaron.  I enjoyed The Paris Letter and I enjoyed The Circle. I only have a few minor quibbles.  The relationships, in the beginning were a bit bewildering. The opening needs work to find a better way to establish the physical relationships.  We get Arnold and the footman. (Man/Servant.) But, when we have other people running about Anna, Teddie, and Elizabeth we are waiting for the relationships to develop and that takes too long.  The front of the program of The Circle shows characters in masks.  It suggests all of these characters have a secret and something to hide before they are ready to express it. (All of the characters.) So each character must have that painful bite in order to get their point across.  The words are like daggers to change the relationship or make them better.  I’m not sure having Arnold in the room looking for the drawing of the Sheraton chair while other members in his family are fighting serves a purpose.  And I think Anna’s moments should be strengthened to solidify the relationship between her and everyone else. These are only small quibbles and they have probably been corrected by the time you get there.

Michele Young did a fabulous job with the Costume Design.  And Judi Lewin also did a great job with the Hair & Wig Design.

Others members of this crew were.

Brigid O’Brien – Assistant Director
Michael Frank – Stage Manager
Ric Zimmerman – Lighting Designer
Bill Froggatt – Sound Designer
David Reynolds – Property
Philip Sokoloff – Publicity

Run!  And take a family member you haven’t seen in a long time.

Through October 28, 2012

Reservations:  310-364-0535

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