Apr 23, 2018

[Theater] Arsenic and Old Lace (Repertory Philippines) Review

Completing Repertory Philippines' season of straight plays is Arsenic & Old Lace, a surprising black comedy that uses the tropes of the farce to great comedic effect. I figured from the title alone that this would be a place involving murder somehow but the way things play out was beyond my wildest imaginations. And thus the source material alone already gave a great basis for a good comedic play.

The cast of talent brought together for this production was larger than most plays of this nature, at least versus prior productions in recent memory. But everything came together quite nicely and resulted in a highly entertaining afternoon for me and Tobie.

This just goes to show that investing in a season ticket for Repertory Philippines continues to be one of the best investments one can make when you're into live performances of this nature. Musicals are fun in their own right but these plays find ways to use their words and other methods at their disposal to deliver a pretty solid theatrical experience.

Synopsis: Arsenic & Old Lace is a black comedy play written by Joseph Kesserling and originally opened on Broadway in 1941. The Repertory Philippines production was directed by Jamie Wilson and ran from 6-29 April 2018 at the Greenbelt OnStage Theater in Makati City.

The play revolves around the Brooklyn home of the Brewster sisters, Abby (Joy Virata) and Martha (Jay Valencia-Glorioso) and their family. The elderly sisters are known in the community for their kindness and generority as they perform many acts of charity and have well endeared themselves to their neighbors and even the local police. Their nephew, the theater critic Mortimer (Nelsito Gomez), is set to marry Elaine (Barbara Jance), the daughter of their neighbor the Rev. Dr. Harper (Gabe Mercado). The only quirk, it seems, is the fact that the brother Teddy (Jeremy Domingo) believes that he's actually the former US president Theodore Roosevelt, but that seems harmless enough apart from his tendency to blow the bugle at odd hours.

But after sharing the news of his engagement with his aunts, Mortimer discovers that his aunts have been hiding a most unusual and rather macabre secret - one that could threaten their happy little lives. To complicate matters further, the estranged brother Jonathan (Apollo Abraham) returns to the family home wearing a new face courtest of a so-called Dr. Einstein (Robbie Guevara). And how their dark secrets might complicate those already caused by the elderly women is where the play really kicks things into high gear.

What I Liked: A good farce relies on a delicate balance of diverse elements introduced at different times coming together to create humorous complications for the assembled cast of characters. And this play nicely juggles a good set of pieces here and there and it all comes crashing down in an unexpected way. I really enjoyed the cleverness of it all and how the story was written in order to make things believable yet hilarious.

The main premise of the show was a great one - one that plays on our natural tendency to trust the elderly to be generally nice, especially when that's all they show us. And it makes it all the harder to believe that these people could be capable of anything truly reprehensible. And the play touches on that without making things feel too dark and manages to keep things across that fine line of comedy. And we certainly laughed a lot during this play.

What Could Have Been Better: The play is sadly dated and a lot of the references such as the running gag about Jonathan now resembling famed horror movie actor Boris Karloff. You could tell that the initial mention of the actor's name didn't resonate as strongly as you'd like except maybe from the older folks in the audience who were present for the Sunday matinee show we had watched. I don't quite know how to fix that sort of thing apart from including a primer or glossary of sorts in the program or something.

Then I sort of wish the policemen characters had more of a role in the production as they had a lot of potential for other comedic bits. As it was, there's still a lot of good hijinks with just the core cast but as they had already gone as far as bringing them in I wish they had one more mid-play role apart from their involvement in the final resolution of things. They did have one character, Officer O'Hara (Steven Conde), who got a lot of dialog mid-way, but I didn't quite see why they needed him as a separate character when they also had the more comedic duo of Officers Klein (Dingdong Rosales) and Brophy (Luis Marcello).

TL;DR: Arsenic & Old Lace is a great example of comedy done right and despite my minor gripes it remains to be a really fun theater experience. Be sure to pay attention to the opening parts of the play as a lotn of those elements get shuffled around later on as is the way of such farcial stories. And thus the play gets a great 5 secrets hidden in the "Panama Canal" out of a possible 5.

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