The Bliss family at the center of Noel Coward's Hay Fever, now playing at Humboldt State University's Gist Hall Theatre, is the epitome of English eccentricity and over-the-top-ness. Judith (Susan Abbey) is the matriarch, a retired stage actress and leading lady in her own drama. She is alternately jealous of and disappointed by her bratty, entitled daughter Sorel (Shawn Wagner), despairing of her would-be Bohemian artist son Simon (Mickey Donovan) and bored by her novelist husband David (John Michael Wilkerson). These self-centered caricatures, who describe themselves as "divinely mad," are tended to by Judith's former dresser and now housekeeper Clara (Madison Glee) with the patience of a saint and the tolerance of a teacher leading a field trip for juvenile delinquents.
When we first meet the Blisses, each member of the family has independently, and without telling anyone else, invited a house guest down for the weekend — always a recipe for fun, games and potentially disastrous consequences. Judith, feeding her hunger for fawning admiration, has invited the sporty Sandy Tyrell (Victor Parra), a longtime fan who fancies his chances with the diva. No sooner has he settled down on one of the home's many loveseats with Judith than in walks the next guest, Myra Arundel (Andrea Carrillo), a vampish socialite invited by an adoring Simon, who took a taxi from the station, not realizing it was A) the only taxi in the village and B) that the remaining two guests had also arrived on the same train. Eventually, the final unwitting players in the Bliss family game arrive: Richard Greatham (William English III), a suave diplomat who Sorel has designs on, and Jackie Coryton (Lauren Zika), an innocent and confused young flapper invited for unclear but doubtless nefarious reasons by Richard.
Thus is the full company assembled and the games begin. Almost immediately, family members begin flirting with guests other than their own — cue carefully choreographed entrances and exits, closed doors and forbidden embraces. There are random declarations of love, theatrical displays of passion and a bizarre game of adverbial charades, all orchestrated by the lunatics running the asylum. By the next morning, all the guests are ready to flee the insanity of the Bliss-ful life, which they manage to do while the family continues to harangue each other over breakfast, barely noticing that they are once more alone with their egos.
Abbey is wonderfully over the top as Judith, commanding the stage and all about her as she plots her triumphant return to the London stage. Wilkerson as David seems a little detached from the proceedings in the first two acts but comes into his own as he defends his latest novel at the breakfast table. Wagner is a little loud but appropriately pouty and flirtatious as Sorel, and it's encouraging to see Donovan extend his range beyond angst-ridden teen into rom-com territory as Simon. Glee's expressive eye-rolling shows she clearly revels in her role as Clara.
Among the guests, Zika shines as the naïve and much-mocked Jackie Coryton. Carrillo is largely self-assured and poised in the role of Myra Arundel, and English is controlled and appropriately diplomatic as Richard Greatham. Parra is less successful as dandy Sandy Tyrell, a role that requires a combination of confidence, puppy-like adoration and quick-wittedness, but practice may get him closer to perfect before the end of the run.
Izzy Ceja's costume designs are quite wonderful and the attention to detail in footwear, jewelry and millinery make all the difference in giving an authentic 1920s feel to the production. Angelica Negrete's makeup design skills are spot-on, building on the significant promise she has shown in other HSU productions. Derek Lane's scenic design and Ray Gutierrez's props design are extravagant and very much appropriate to both the era and the personalities — this is probably the most furniture that's ever been assembled on the Gist Hall Theatre stage, yet James P. McHugh's deft, well-paced direction, supported by associate director Roman Sanchez, has the cast smoothly navigating around the stage (and each other). Cory Stewart's sound design and Lane's lighting design combine to fully draw us into the period and the action.
The one minor quibble for me with this production is the wide variety of English accents affected by the cast, who come across as if each individual comes from a different part of the country (or, for a couple of the actors, the Indian subcontinent). However, as a Brit, I am probably more sensitive to this than most, so I'm happy to give them a pass.
At the end of the day, Hay Fever is part comedy of (bad) manners, part melodrama and pure entertainment from beginning to end. Miss these two hours of fun-filled farce at your peril.
HSU's Hay Fever plays in Gist Hall Theatre on Saturday, May 5 and Sunday, May 6 at 7:30 p.m. Call 826-3928 or visit www.centerarts.humboldt.edu.
Clown! hits vaudeville, circus and international clowning traditions right on the big red nose at Dell'Arte's Carlo Theatre May 3-5. Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.
Redwood Curtain Theatre travels to 1836 New Orleans for The House that Will Not Stand, the tale of well-to-do free woman of color Beatrice. Expect Big Easy-style jealousy, murder and voodoo starting May 3 and running through May 20. Call 443-7688 or visit www.redwoodcurtain.org.
If you're not getting enough scandal and criminal celebrity in the national news, Chicago starts with a preview on May 3 and plays through June 3 at Ferndale Repertory Theatre. Call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.