The Betrothedby Dipika Guha. Directed by Byam Stevens.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Caitlin McDonough-Thayer and Chad Hoeppner; photo: Rick Teller
"It all gets better, when the passion fades."
Actor John Shuman plays the silences better than so many others play their lines, especially when his character has been dead for half a century and still can’t win a hand of cards. If that statement is confusing you, remember that when the passions of life fade from our hard-lived existence, everything else improves, i.e. "it all gets better." Except perhaps our talent for poker. This is just one of the odd elements of the magical realism romantic comedy "The Betrothed" by Dipika Guha now closing the season for the Chester Theatre Company.
Its story is straightforward: Simon is betrothed for thirty years to a woman he has never seen. He travels from Pittsburgh, PA to his fatherland to marry the woman and ends up in bed with her mother instead, then kills her, then consults with his dead father and Dad’s dead friend Gonan (John Shuman) about the transmigration of the soul. Then everything starts over. This all happens in 90 minutes and is actually more fun, much better in fact, than you realize until its over.
Byam Stevens has directed a superb company of players (and not just Shuman) in this oddly delicious comedy about love, death and our relationship with the afterlife. In magical realism there is often one or more character who long outlives his or her life-span entering into the main story in ways that though not possible seem remarkably realistic. Stevens captures this in simple ways here. No one is ever presented in any way that traditionally says ‘dead’ to the observer. Nothing is outside the realm of believability even though we understand that nothing here is within it either. It is the presentation, and Stevens has given his actors some remarkably unreal moments to play, that makes the difference. Even the ultimate vision of romantic loyalty, though funny, seems right and real and totally plausible.
Chad Hoeppner plays young Simon, off on his great romantic venture to the marriage bed. He can deadpan with the best. He can enthuse with the energy and glee of a young Robert Morse and be despondent in the way that Tom Hanks can be miserable. His moods are displayed expertly in both face and body, his hands acting as transition points for his changes in attitude. If he lights up with enthusiasm, you might say there was a light cue called in the stage manager’s booth; most likely not, though.
As his father, and another, younger man, Anderson Matthews displays the gruffness of a foreign dad while also showing the low estimate pride that such a man might feel and openly express among friends about his only son. Matthews has a knack for managing two simultaneous conversations without looking up, yet making it plain just whom he is addressing. Under Stevens’ direction we can also find the familial in his makeup with his own child and his child as well.
John Shuman plays the mostly dumb, or mute, Gonan and the Priest who acts as orator at a funeral for one woman who is two women and as witch doctor/advisor for the young man in need of a potion notion. He has found ways to self-correct that are similar to each other and yet different enough to qualify as an unpronounced admission of error and an occasional apology and also an excuse for contained fury. He brings Gonan to unusual life when he has a rare moment alone and the mutated mute realizes a life-long dream in death.
Rasheeda and Anna Cecilia are given excessive bursts of life-force by Caitlin McDonough-Thayer. Over the top describes one and under the radar typifies the other one. How often have we witnessed a play where we must wonder what the leading man sees in this odd woman? We do so here, but we also know where the fascination lies without having to ask, or wonder, for long. This actress could probably play a siphon and make it realistic and believable. She has a remarkable voice and body, both flexible and accented, both longer and lazier than seems possible. She has a real knack for laughter also. She can literally knock you dead with a simple line and then make you sit up and listen carefully with her next one. I would have her read me anything and give her the reins of character expression without hesitation.
Together with Hoeppner this is a magical, realistic pairing. They are the making of this play and production. They are the real thing, in a theatrical magical way.
The oddest, quirkiest set of the season is on this small stage, designed by Vicki R. Davis. Sarah Patterson Nelson provides perfectly definitive clothing for these characters and the play is performed under the expert lighting design of Lara Dubin. Tom Shread has chosen some outrageous music for his cues and the sound plot mirrors the oddities of the script perfectly. There is nothing subtle here, nothing at all.
Byam Stevens and his company deserve a special round of applause for making an irrepressible theatrical jaunt into a fun, but short, evening of transformations. For one, Dipika Guha’s script provides a number of problems but they are all overcome by the players in this play. For another the curious oddities of the visual picture overwhelm, then become ordinary. It takes a magic touch to make magical realism real and Stevens seems to have that under control. I’d see this if I was me, or you could see it if you are you. Just don’t ask too many questions until it’s over and then don’t expect the answers you expect. Just enjoy it.
The Betrothed runs through August 26 at the Chester Theatre Company’s Town Hall theater in the center of Chester, MA (just off route 20). For tickets and information call the box office at 413-354-7771 or go on line to www.chestertheatre.org.