Saturday, March 9, 2013

Great Ensemble Makes Family Royally Funny

By James E. Trainor III

Iowa City - The Royal Family, a 1927 play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, simultaneously mocks and celebrates the famous Barrymore acting family. ICCT's production, directed by Krista Neumann with set design by Steve Hall, Evie Stanske, and Krista Neumann, does a great job of realizing the zany characters and hectic, outrageous environment of a classic Kaufman play.

The Royal Family makes great use of ICCT's space, seating audience on two sides of a 20th-century living room with several exits. There is also a staircase that goes through the house, which adds a level and allows for dramatic entrances and frenzied activity. There is lots of furniture on the lower level, and the actors are kept moving so that sightlines stay open. While this feels a bit stagy during the one-on-one scenes, it's very effective during the ensemble scenes, and Neumann does a great job of directing the audience's attention and keeping the energy up.

The main plot revolves around three generations of Cavendish women -- Fanny (Caroline Oster), a once great actress who wants to tour again even though her health is failing, Julie (Nicole DeSalle), who struggles to make her call time between her eccentric family and her wealthy fiancee, and Gwen (Jessica Murillo), who shocks the family by telling them she want to get married and be a normal person. There are a lot of parallels between their stories, and the tension between family, work, and love is a major theme of The Royal Family.

While Kaufman and Ferber's script paints this family as melodramatic and ridiculous at times, there is a certain affection in the way their undeniable passion keeps bringing them back to the stage. Julie breaks down in the middle of the second act, raging at her family for dumping all their problems on them (a scene played with energy and humor by DeSalle), finally collapsing and swearing she's never going on stage again. But when she realizes she's late to the theatre, she's up and out the door. Similarly, Gwen (who Murillo plays with equal parts grace and childish petulance), caves into pressure from Perry (Nate Sullivan) to leave the stage and be a housewife. But as soon as the baby's born, she's back on stage, for a few weeks only... unless it becomes a big hit.

The scenes in which the women struggle over whether to commit to the stage or to a family can get a bit circular, but that's mainly due to the dialogue. Sincere, organic expressions of emotion aren't exactly Kaufman's strength. However, Neumann and the acting company save these scenes by playing them earnestly and by truly engaging with each other. Murillo in particularly is a very attentive scene partner, keeping the energy level high in scenes with Sullivan, with DeSalle, and at the end with Joseph Dobrian (who plays Oscar Wolfe, the family's loyal manager). DeSalle falls into an easy rhythm with Josh Sazon's smooth, smiling Gilmore Marshall, who wants to take Julie away from her hectic life and let her bask in luxury in South America.

Brad Quinn plays Tony Cavendish, Julie's brother, with characteristic audacity and hilarity. His Tony is talented but childish, both lovable and insufferable, and from his panicked entrance (he is hiding from the press due to his latest scandal) to his fights with his sister to his return from Europe, Quinn's Tony is a lot of fun to watch.

Rip Russell and Katia Maxey play Herbert and Kitty Dean, lesser actors who try to ride the coattails of the Cavendishes. Both are immediately engaging, and are very funny in their petty squabbling. Russell and Maxey have great chemistry together, and in The Royal Family this comic duo is quite well-cast.

The company in general is very good at playing the ensemble scenes; everyone is listening to each other and the tension is often heightened, especially as people are running in and out of doors and everyone is talking at once. Two moments stand out in particular: in the first act, when Tony first enters the scene, the family mobs him with questions, and everything starts happening at once in a fit of excitement. In the second act, Marshall, telling the family about his trip, tells an anecdote about a ragtag group of actors and their disreputable manager. The cold responses from the company are very effective, and before they begin to leave the room one by one, there's a feeling Marshall is about to be lynched. A tightly-knit, fully engaged ensemble is needed to make a show like this work, and Neumann's cast is strong here. Everyone clamors for attention at once in a very funny way, and Carl Brown and Diviin Huff, who play the butler Jo and the maid Della, are very good with humorous reactions to these outrageous characters.

I encourage you to go see The Royal Family; it's a classic play with themes that are very relevant, and moreover it is quite funny. The Royal Family plays again tonight and Sunday as well as next weekend at ICCT; ticket information here.

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