Are Fort Worth audiences farced out? Apparently not, judging by the prolonged and hearty laughter that greeted a recent performance of Circle Theatre’s current British comedy See How They Run. Philip King’s 1944 script, set in a vicarage during World War II, comes hot on the heels of another English exercise in impropriety, Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, at Stage West. While the Orton show was thoroughly modern in its sexual themes, King’s See How They Run is unabashedly of its time and place, a charming mid-century trifle given surprising credibility by director Robin Armstrong and her masterful cast.
The big troublemaker in See How They Run is Penelope (Sherry Hopkins), a free-spirited former actress who has married the Rev. Lionel Toop (Christopher Curtis), vicar of a sleepy little English village at the height of the war. Though Penelope’s family has the right church connections –– her uncle is the imperious Bishop of Lax (David H.M. Lambert) –– she always manages to scandalize locals like the fussy Miss Skillon (Becca Shivers) by wearing pants or waving to strange American soldiers quartered at the nearby base. One of those Allied men, a corporal named Clive (Mark Shum), is an old friend from Penelope’s theater days who co-starred with her in a production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. The pair of them decide to catch a local staging of the Coward play with Clive dressed up in one of the vicar’s outfits so the villagers won’t recognize him as a soldier. This seemingly harmless little ruse sets off a chain of mad farcical consequences that involve the entire Toop household, including saucy maid Ida (Hannah McKinney), a visiting minister named Arthur Humphrey (R. Bradford Smith), and a gun-wielding Russian spy (Eric Dobbins) who’s escaped from Allied captivity nearby.
If that sounds difficult to follow on the page, it’s a breeze to watch on the Circle stage. The main complication is that five men wear the collar and black suit of an English vicar at different times during the play, causing real clergymen to be mistaken for impostors and vice versa while the Russian spy attempts to hold the inhabitants of the vicarage hostage. One of the chief pleasures of Circle’s seamless staging is imagining the kind of escapist pleasure this show must’ve provided to English audiences as war raged on outside the theater. (Circle’s production program includes a short reminiscence of the play’s 1945 West End opening night. Bombs were dropped during the performance –– the real kind, by German enemies, not bad reviews from whiny critics.)
Director Armstrong has elicited such note-perfect performances from her large cast that the show has the authentic period feel of a 1940s Ealing Studios film comedy with Alec Guinness. Despite the script’s abundance of silliness –– drunken pratfalls, people getting locked in closets, grown men chasing each other in their underwear –– Armstrong has made sure the proceedings never feel rushed or tossed-off, knowing full well that a fast, manic delivery does not always equal funny. She has instructed her actors not to simply mug their way through the far-fetched situations but to deliver measured, well-timed reactions that make the shenanigans feel credible.
Though everyone does a bang-up job in this show, the women emerge especially victorious. The performance by Hopkins, in particular, was great fun to watch. Some of her funniest moments were silent ones, her fretful face assessing an outlandish or dangerous situation and quickly registering the decision to carry on with some new, equally desperate plan. Shivers was delightful as Miss Skillon, the prim and self-righteous parishioner who turns predatory when Toop is around. After accidentally getting drunk, Miss Skillon spends much of the play fighting to stand up straight and deliver simple sentences; in Shivers’ artfully clumsy hands, the shtick never got old. As Ida, the leering cockney maid who inadvertently saves the entire household, McKinney was the perfect stand-in for the audience –– aghast at the scandalous events unfolding before her but enjoying every minute of them. And that’s the key to why Circle’s staging is so impressive despite its source material: In terms of action, there’s nothing remotely fresh or inventive about See How They Run. Ticketbuyers have seen this kind of door-slamming farce many times before, especially on area stages. But rarely have we seen it performed so expertly or joyfully.
See How They Run
Thru Sat at Circle Theatre, 230 W 4th St, FW. $20-30.