The Tavern, by George M. Cohan. From the play by Cora Dick Gannt. Directed by Steven Patterson. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Brett Owen, Alexandra Doggette, Elisabeth Henry, Kane Prestenback, David Smilow; photo: John Sowle
"I didn't write the play, your Excellency. I'm just the audience."
Louise Pillai, Kane Prestenback; photo: John Sowle
I read this play when I was in high school, back about 1962. I have never, until now, seen a production of it. What I liked about it way back then is what I still like about it. It is about theatricality. It takes a mega-dose of that element to make it work for an audience and that means going over the top, abandoning reality and letting the actions and words just fly, fly above the stage, above the audience if necessary. It's like everyone is Peter Pan and everyone adores Peter Pan. At the Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill, New York, the company is doing exactly that.
This opening is more than just a play. It is the opening of the company's main stage for the very first time. This has been in the works for a while and the wait and the expectation has been very worthwhile for the theater space, very much like Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage, is a fine playing space with a comfortable audience area. It is wonderful that the company has used their new performance venue to present one of America's finest old plays. This old in the new helps to make the old new again.
According to Burns Mantle, gatherer of all things American Theater, this play was originally produced by George M. Cohan utilizing the script written by Cora Dick Gannt but heavily revised b y Cohan himself at the Cohan Theatre on Broadway on September 27, 1920. It starred Arnold Daly, one of the stalwarts of the New York stage at that time. It was a big enough commercial hit for Cohan to bring it back in May the following year, this time with his own name on the play as author and himself in the central role. He later toured in the play, making it that much more his own. It has never been considered a critical gem.
And yet, if you approach it for what it is, a burlesque melodrama, it is one of the finest of its kind. All of the elements are present, enshrouded in a violent storm that not only rages outside the walls and windows of the Tavern, but also let in a series of strangers acting strangely and let out a couple of madmen, some permanently mad, and some only "teched temporarily." We have the lawman who flaunts his power. We have the brain damaged servant. We have the randy maid. We have the randier son of the tavernkeeper, and he is also quite a character, quick to condemn and judge, slow to take action. There is the stranded family including the governor of the state and with them is the daughter's fiance, a man who supresses his unexposed personal guilt. And there is The Vagabond, the man who moves everything and everyone and who could explain the ending to you if you needed to hear it in plain language.Together these characters live in a world so theatrical that we doubt the possibility of their existence which, somehow, works for the play..
On the Catskill stage the fine cast is led by Kane Prestenback as The Vagabond . His lyric tenor voice strikes gongs unsupported by anything but air. His gestures are broad and bold and his tall loose boots hold him fast to the ground even when he leaps upward and onward. As the fifth character to appear out of fourteen (the program gives us twelve but two other men appear without billing) it is his character that sets the pace and poses for the production. From his first appearance this man clearly rules the play and gives it definition. Prestenback is a delight, his physicalization of the character finds the root of the play's long-lasting success.
As the woman who inspires him the most, the governor's daughter Virginia, Alexandra Doggette is deliciously coy and superbly commonplace. She combines these elements to give us a young woman who knows exactly what she wants and who is happiest in the playing out of her dreams rather than in having them in her firm grasp. Doggette is the least exaggerated player on the stage and that helps to ground the play in its theatricality. Her mother is played with sly reactions by Elisabeth Henry. David Smilow plays her father who spends the second act in a nightshirt which seems just perfect for the state's governor who is under seige by a strange woman, under attack by the Vagabond and underwear-bound. This is a delightful family in their able and talented hands.
Willum, the hired man, is played by Art Skonpinsky. Willum is subject to fits, always the same and always triggered by gunshots or by the storm raging or by the actions of others. Each fit he throws becomes funnier than than those preceding it. The hired girl, the romantic Sally, is played with enough cuteness to choke a horse by Lindsay Cahill. This actress is secure enough in the style imposed on the play by the director to imbue her character with every element of the young romantic maid in love with her master's son. In the briefer role of the Sheriff, Keith Mueller makes a strong impression, one that is unforgettable which makes the revelations about his secret life that much more remarkable.
The curiously uneasy fiance, Tom Allen, is played by Brett Owen in such a humorous way that he becomes almost the most real character in the play. As someone who cannot face his own potential guilt, who runs away in the worst ways at the worst times, he inspires both ridicule and sympathy and that's not an easy duo. Parker Cross as the Attendant has the best moment in the show when he asks a question that gets the entire audience into an uproar.
There are three characters who hold down the corners of the play, Freeman the tavern keeper, Zach, his song, and Violet, the woman. Robert Ragaini plays Freeman, a demanding, and hostile human being whose tavern must surely be the least liked watering hole in town. In the over-acting department, Ragaini wins hands down which is just what the play and the part demands of the actor. He literally puts the melo in melodrama and he gives Cohan's lines every iota of their intent. As his son, Gabriel James cuts a lush romantic figure which is most appropriate. Handsome, with a fine voice and a knack for the exaggerated gesture, James begins the play on a level about four feet above the stage floor and makes that a challenge for the rest of the cast to match. Louise Pillai is the woman whose actions precipitate much of the story's weirder aspects. Pillai lets her body, face and voice run rampant over the logic of her role. She is curiously funny at her most difficult moments and as funny as can be in her simplest gestures and her gentle affectionate grin.
Under the excellent direction of Steven Patterson, this company disport themselves in the style of the 1920s without restraint or concern for our opinions. When The Vagabond declares himself not the author of the night's entertaining entanglements it is the voice of Cohan speaking through the character he played for many years. This company doesn't need to tell the audience about that, it just needs to hear the man utter the impossible words, a proclamation of ridiculous possession. Patterson knows how to play this moment and his puppet, Prestenback, does not let him down. None of the actors, including the two unnamed men who get laughs with looks and hesitant responses, ever betray their director's vision in this show. Together puppeteer and manikins pull off the nearly impossible and we love them for their controlled exaggeration of real life in this burlesque of the form.
John Sowle's set and lighting are wonderful and the costumes designed by Michelle Rogers work so very well for the production.
You won't have many shots at this play. The odds are this is it. Run, don't walk, to the new theater space on Bridge Street, Catskill for your shot at George M. Cohan's non-musical masterwork. So what if it isn't entirely his own. It will always be his and a piece of it can be yours, too.
Robert Ragaini, Gabriel James; photo: John Sowle
The Tavern runs through September 25 at the Bridge Street Theatre, 44 W. Bridge Street, Catskill, NY. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-943-3818 or go on line to www.bridgest.org.