“Hay Fever at Melbourne Civic Theatre. Photo by Max Thornton.
By PAM HARBAUGH
Sophistication and wit take center stage at Melbourne Civic Theatre with its production of “Hay Fever” by Noel Coward.
Set in the 1920s in a country home outside London, “Hay Fever” is a dizzying comedy of manners complete with suggestions of naughtiness and slinky high-style posturing all tied up in three acts. Not to fear, since that third act is more of a quick denouement, there’s only one intermission.
The story revolves around the celebrated Bliss family. There is Judith Bliss, a histrionic actress who has been retired from the theater for a year, but for whom the whole world remains a stage.
Her husband is David Bliss, an acclaimed author of popular novels. Their children are 19 year old daughter, Sorel, for whom the world is a tad boring; and Simon, a young man who yearns to be an artist.
Without announcing it to anyone, each member of the family has invited a guest for a weekend stay in their English country home. As if on cue, flirtations ensue with each other’s guests and what would have been a weekend’s tedium turns into exciting games, at least for the Bliss family.
“It’s a little bit like ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ with George and Martha going at it with the guests, but it doesn’t turn dark or mean,” said Kathy Minzenberger, who plays Judith Bliss. “It’s high comedy, over the top with that dry English humor.”
It’s definitely Noel Coward through and through, said director Peg Girard.
While it’s one thing to have on paper a great comic souffle and delicious little quips for which Coward was known, it’s another bringing that to life.
“Noel Coward said this play, he felt, was one of the hardest for an actor because it’s not plot driven, it’s character driven,” Minzenberger said. “That’s my challenge as Judith Bliss, to have the freedom to be as large as you want to be. I find that exciting but at the same time sort of daunting.
“My character is overbearing but curiously lovable. All the characters are like that in the Bliss family.”
Sorel (played by Tori Terhune), has invited Richard Greatham (Rob Kenna), a proper man who happens to be an English diplomat. Despite his manners, he finds himself laying a kiss on Judith’s neck, causing her to inflate the trifle into a full-blown affair.
Sorel, though, is not upset by this flirtation because she has one of her own with Sandy (Jonathan Bonesteel), a boxer who received his invitation to the Bliss home from Judith.
Simon (Robert Berry) has invited Myra Arundel (Tracey Thompson) for the weekend; but he turns his romantic sights onto Jackie Coryton (Kristin Springer), a flapper invited by David Bliss (Steve Budkiewicz)…who in turn shares a dalliance with Simon’s guest.
Then there’s the maid, Clara (Kate Schwartz), who was once Judith’s dresser when she was in the theater.
But not to worry, says Kenna…he’s the diplomat Richard Greathem, remember?…the audience will keep it all straight.
“Peg sees that (possible confusion) and works the direction so that people can understand it,” Kenna said. “It’s basically the family unit and we get moved around them. The guests are pawns in the Bliss’ game that they amuse themselves with.
“And the set is beautiful. Wow. The costumes are period with three-piece suits and women dressed like the roaring 20s.”
Of course, with all this theatrical, high style eccentric characters, patrons to MCT’s recent production of “It’s Only a Play” will find themselves getting a second glimpse into the eccentricities of artsy, unconventional people.
Terrence McNally’s “Only a Play” brought audiences into a behind-the-scenes setting after a play opening and introduces a wealth of histrionic personalities. Coward’s “Hay Fever” brings audiences into the home of histrionic personalities.
“There is a similarity except one is New York town home Broadway 2015 while the other is English countryside 1920s,” Kenna laughed. “And of course, you have the English and that suppressed emotion as opposed to in-your-face.”
Still, according to biographer John Kenrick, the “over-the-top theatrical lifestyle” Coward experienced in the “home of playwright Hartley Manners and his wife, the eccentric actress Laurette Taylor” in a 1921 trip to New York inspired Coward three years later to write Hay Fever” (www.musicals101.com).
Coward reportedly wrote the play in three days in 1924 but wasn’t produced until after the success of his drama, “The Vortex,” which explored drug use in high society, an uncommon theme, to say the least, in the early 1920s.
Ironically, that heavy drama, in which Coward starred, opened the door to the witty, sophisticated comedies for which Coward is best known, including “Private Lives” (1930) and “Blithe Spirit” (1941).
But it was “Hay Fever” that established that Noel Coward style, filled with witty repartee and divine understatement.
“It’s hilarious,” Minzenberger said. “The audience is going to love it. It’s like a helicopter has dropped you into this midst of all this Bohemian, 1920s fun.”
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Hay Fever” opens Friday and runs through June 24 at Melbourne Civic Theatre, 817 E. Strawbridge Ave., Melbourne. It performs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $31 general and $29 seniors, military and students. Call 321-723-6935, visit MyMCT.org or click on their ad.
This is an edited version of a story running in Melbourne Beachsider.