Sunday, September 10, 2023

"Arsenic and Old Lace" at Theatre in the Round

The 72nd season at the oldest theater in Minneapolis, Theatre in the Round, is a mix of new plays and classics, and they're starting with a classic - the 1939 dark comedy about sweetly murderous sisters, Arsenic and Old Lace. The 1944 film adaptation starring Cary Grant is a popular one, but of course it was a play first (and not surprisingly I've only seen it on stage). Theatre in the Round has gathered a large and talented cast to portray these oddball (but sometimes lovable) characters, with a detailed design in their in-the-round space, and beyond. It makes for a fun and entertaining night at the theater, continuing through October 1 (click here for info and tickets). Content warning: murder.

Wealthy sisters Martha and Abby Brewster take their charity to lethal levels - putting "lonely" people out of their misery and giving them a lovely burial in their cellar. And it turns out that madness, and murder, runs in the family. The sisters have three nephews. Teddy lives with them and thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt. He dresses the part, thinks the basement is Panama, and yells "charge" every time he ascends the stairs. Teddy's brother Mortimer seems quite normal and well-adjusted; he's a theater critic (which allows playwright Joseph Kesselring to get in many jokes about the theater and critics) and newly engaged. His fiancé Elaine is a smart and spunky minister's daughter, who's also a neighbor and friend of the Brewster sisters. Mortimer loves his aunties and is quite shocked when he stumbles upon their dirty little secret. Instead of turning them in, he tries to find a way to protect them and get them out of the situation, even though they don't think they need any help. The third brother is the long absent Jonathan, who left town as a troubled teenager, and continued in his devious ways. He's on the run from the law and comes home to hide, bringing some baggage with him. Jonathan is a tall, creepy figure out of an old horror movie (his face has been surgically altered to look like Boris Karloff, who played the role in the original production). Accompanying him is his plastic surgeon accomplice Dr. Einstein (but not that Dr. Einstein). The aunts and Mortimer try to get rid of Jonathan, but he insists on staying. He soon discovers their secret and uses that as leverage. In the end, Mortimer devises a complicated plan to solve the aunts' problem as well as get rid of his criminal brother, with the help of some bumbling police officers who happen to come in at the right time.*

don't drink the Brewster sisters' special elderberry wine
(Naomi Karstad and Kristen Mathisen, photo by Twin Cities Headshots)
George M. Roesler directs the piece with the perfect darkly comedic tone, full of double takes and physical humor (mostly with the dead body dummies). He makes great use of the space at Theater in the Round, utilizing the stairway to the elevated space in the audience as the upstairs hallway, with some shenanigans happening behind the bay window with the all important window seat. Naomi Karstad and Kristen C. Mathison are just delightful as the Brewster sisters, offering tea one moment, and the next planning a funeral for some unsuspecting man whom they helped "transition." Jared Reise is a great "Teddy Roosevelt," innocently helping the sisters in their plans. Luke Langfeldt is super creepy as Jonathan, never losing the foreboding sinister air, and Lucas Gerstner is a highlight as his right hand man Einstein, deftly performing much of the physical comedy. As Mortimer, Ron Ravensborg is a wonderful straight man amidst the insanity, starting off as confident and getting more and more desperate to help his family out of the mess. Last but not least, Sarah Furniss is the perfect '40s heroine as Elaine, in love with Mortimer but standing up for herself, and a little bewildered as the craziness ensues.

The stage has been constructed as two different levels, with a step up to the living room space, something I don't recall seeing before on the Theatre in the Round stage. I'm not sure the purpose of this, other than visual interest and something for people to trip on in the dark. The historic Brooklyn Brewster home is well represented with period furniture, floral wallpaper, and old family photos on the walls. The period costumes are spot on, with an array of darling dresses for Elaine. (Set design by Lee Christiansen, costume design by Rebecca Karstad).

It's been 12 years since I've seen this play (and never seen the movie), so everything that unfolded was a wild and wacky surprise. For the opinion of someone who knows and loves the movie, read about what my fellow blogger Rob from The Stages of Minnesota thought about it. Either way it's a rolicking good time. 

To find out more about what the bloggers think about the upcoming season from Theatre in the Round ad 16 other theaters in town, listen to episode one of season two of our podcast Twin Cities Theater Chat.

*Plot summary borrowed from my review of the 2011 Guthrie production.