Saturday, July 1, 2017

"Idiot's Delight" by Girl Friday Productions at Park Square Theatre

Idiot's Delight is one of those deceptive plays that makes you think it's a light and fun romp through the past, until you begin to see the seriousness behind the beautiful clothes and pretty music. WWI vet Robert E. Sherwood's play premiered in 1936 and is eerily prescient about the impending war in Europe. Or maybe not; maybe it was obvious at the time that the world was heading to another Great War, only 20 years after the first one. But even now, 80 years after it was written, the themes of nationalism, loyalty, changing borders, and a great sadness at the cost of war on all sides ring true. This one left me feeling a little depressed, but with much to contemplate, and also thoroughly entertained, as always, by Girl Friday Productions' biennial contribution to the #TCTheater world. Girl Friday specializes in "larger scale American plays of exceptional literary merit that are less frequently produced today," and Idiot's Delight is indeed a delight, but one that is most certainly not for idiots.

The play takes place on "a winter day in any imminent year" in a quiet little hotel resort in the Italian (formerly Austrian) alps. Quiet until a train is stopped when the borders are closed because of the imminent war between Italy and France. The train's passengers are stranded at the hotel overnight, and the hotel proprietors and staff try to make it a festive evening (and seriously, a resort in the Alps sounds like a pretty awesome place to be stranded for any length of time). The hotel guests come from many different countries around Europe on both sides of the conflict, and tensions rise when Italy bombs Paris and full war breaks out. But amidst all the drama there is still time for music (some Rodgers and Hart tunes played by music director Kevin Dutcher on piano), dancing (choreographed by cast member C. Ryan Shipley), and the reunion of long-lost loves (arranged by fate).

All sides are sympathetic in this conflict (as one character reminds us, "it's all our faults"), which could also be due to this yummy 17-person cast, with not a weak link among them. Italians are represented by the hotel proprietress (played by Girl Friday Artistic Director Kirby Bennett), pleasant butler Dumpsty, the heart of this piece, hiding a wistfulness of his lost homeland (a lovely performance by Sam Landman), the military captain stationed at this outpost who strictly follows the rules but expresses some regret at having to do so (Eric Knutson), and his Italian speaking officers (Mike Swan and C. Ryan Shipley). Representing the Americans we have the bored social director (David Beukema) and the traveling performer Harry Van (John Middleton) with his blond singing/dancing trio (Bonnie Allen, Karissa Lade, and Becca Hart, each one fun to watch in her own unique way). Then there's the charming and elegant British honeymooners (the delightful Adelin Phelps and Gabriel Murphy), the German doctor researching a cure for cancer until war changes her (Karen Wiese-Thompson, who proves she is just as adept at breaking my heart as cracking me up), the nefarious Russian arms dealer (a chilling David Coral), and the mysterious Irene (a beautifully layered performance by Stacia Rice). Last but not least we have the Frenchman Quillery, the moral conscience of the piece who cannot stand by while his beloved homeland is destroyed (Kory LaQuess Pullam, with a devastatingly real performance).

the yummy cast of Idiot's Delight (photo by Richard Fleischman)
The look of the play is as yummy as the cast. The gathering space at the hotel is all softly rounded - stools, tables, railings, and stairways, elegant and with a lovely view of a mural of the Alps through the windows at the back of the stage, which changes color with the time of the day. The period costumes are a feast for the eyes, three-piece suits and elegant dresses in bright colors with matching hats, coats, gloves, and shoes - oh the shoes! (Scenic design by Michael Hoover, lighting design by Dietrich Poppen, costume design by Kathy Kohl.)

All of the complicated pieces and multiple characters and storylines are expertly held together by director Craig Johnson (who won an Ivey Award for directing Girl Friday's 2011 show Street Scene), hitting all the comic moments but knowing when to let the tragedy of the situation take center stage.

This eccentric mix of characters played by wonderful actors will be stranded on Park Square Theatre's Andy Boss Thrust Stage through July 23. If you miss Idiot's Delight, you'll be the idiot who has to wait two years for another chance to see Girl Friday beautifully fill the unique niche they've created for themselves.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.