Fondly, Collette Richland
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Fondly, Collette Richland: Theater review by David Cote
Playwright Sibyl Kempson and the multifarious Elevator Repair Service have engendered something rare: real insanity in the theater. I mean no disrespect to the artistry of all involved or even the clinically bonkers: Fondly, Collette Richland is a vast, flapping freak flag, a surreal farce about the struggle between pre-Christian, Earth-mother eco-anarchy and the awful boredom of bourgeois patriarchy. At least I think it is. Thickly encrypted and swaddled in mystery, Fondly defies description and cozy comprehension. Writing about it is no breeze either.
The action begins in a suburban kitchen, where chipper Mabrel Fitzhubert (bubbly, burbling Laurena Allen) welcomes her weary husband Colonel “Fritz” (Vin Knight, creepily all-American) after a long day at work. Representative Wheatsun (Greig Sargeant, our sweet audience stand-in) knocks at their door and soon finds himself going down a rabbit hole that ends at the Grand Hôtel Conclae Vista in the Alps. Susie Sokol plays a self-loathing housecat that eventually crawls into a cardboard box and mails herself to freedom. Oh, I almost forgot Father Mumbles (imperturbable Mike Iveson), garbed in full priestly regalia and tickling the ivories stage right. He provides narrative and lovely piano accompaniment.
“Fritz,” Mabrel and Mabrel’s sister Winnifr’d (Kate Benson) wash up at the Grand Hôtel, which is crawling with whimsical types: chatty society ladies (Maggie Hoffman, Lindsay Hockaday) who rattle off passages from Gibbons’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; gruff yet chipper gift-shop hawker Clothilde (Sokol again); a dethroned empress (Lucy Taylor); a mystical gal (Kaneeza Schaal); and Mabrel’s sister-in-law, the glamorous and hot-tempered Dora (April Matthis).
Matthis, got up in loud clothes and sunglasses, and speaking in a hilarious nasal drawl, also plays the title role, a radio-show host who disseminates a crypto-feminist agenda with lines like, “Did you know that you are full of ancient mysteries? Woven into your flesh, into your mind. Please feel free to relax your civilized mind. You need not to balance the budget tonight. We need not move to Mars.” Switching gears completely, the versatile actor camps it up as the lovelorn and tantrum-prone Dora, who pines after hunky Sailorboy (Ben Williams).
I might have failed to tell you what on earth Fondly, Collette Richland is about. It’s a metaphysical slapstick comedy in which non sequiturs come fast and thick, and the intertextual references include Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, Clare Booth Luce’s brittle satire The Women, the aforementioned Gibbons and wheelbarrow of feminist theory. It has a Joycean, hyperlinked density that is both hard to follow and beguiling as music all its own.
It spoils nothing to say this long, loopy piece ends on a mountain with society ladies squaring off against a satanic entity called the Krampus (Williams, actually scary). John Collins’s richly layered, densely designed production (with a goofy-brilliant soundscape by Williams) rises to the whirling, morphing challenge of Kempson’s remarkable script. I haven’t been so bewildered yet so delighted in ages.—David Cote
New York Theatre Workshop (Off Broadway). By Sibyl Kempson. Directed by John Collins. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 40mins. One intermission.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote