During the intermission for the Elevator Repair Service’s “Fondly, Collette Richland,” at the same time that a noticeable number of theatergoers fervidly exited New York Theatre Workshop for good, an avant-garde director I know came up to me and said “I’m loving this. But it should be at 3 in the morning.”
I agreed with the director… and also with the exiting theatergoers.
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.
This is the first time that the Elevator Repair Service has created a work in collaboration with a living writer, playwright Sibyl Kempson. It is surely safe to say that “Fondly, Collette Richland” — an absurdist tease of a play directed by ERS artistic director John Collins that mixes comic non-sequiturs with dream-like incoherence and ancient mystical mayhem — will not be greeted with the same widespread enthusiastic acclaim as the avant-garde theater company’s best-known previous work. ERS used the verbatim texts of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for “Gatz,” Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises for “The Select”, and a chapter from Faulkner’s novel for “The Sound and the Fury.”
Kempson has said that her text for “Fondly, Collette Richland” is inspired by another work of twentieth century literature, “Two Serious Ladies” by Jane Bowles. But diving into this famously obtuse and hallucinatory modernist novel, I suspect, is not going to help much in unlocking the play.
Kempson has also said that the work is connected to her female awakening and female power, and is an attempt to “consciously foreground the feminine forces that are already sort of running things more than we’d care to admit.”
If this is useful as a preview or analysis, more power to you.
More accessible is this comment she made in American Theatre Magazine: “I do think my plays are for everyone. But if you’re coming to them with the need for a familiar structure, you might feel confused. If you come with the regular yardstick you use to measure plays, you’ll be disappointed. But with no yardstick there’s more openness. There’s a lot there to dig into. It’s a landscape.”
For me, the key to appreciating “Fondly, Collette Richland” is not to try to understand it, but to let it wash over you – or to witness it the way one might a parade or a circus, just taking in the many funny moments, the vivid characters in colorful costumes and the barrage of wild, loud, goofy and frightening sounds. Sound design has always been something of an ERS specialty, although in the past it augmented a coherent plot. Now – and without intending to disparage the dozen members of the cast, who are game and hardworking — Ben Williams’s sound design is the star of “Fondly, Collette Richland,” on equal billing with its co-star, Jacob Climer’s costumes.
There’s justification within the play itself for this approach. Collette Richland (April Matthis) enters the stage, wearing dark glasses and a colorful pantsuit and carrying a placard with the title of the play, and says (among other things) the following:
“I was just thinking, reminiscing, really. When I was a child, we used to gather round the radio and listen to our favorite programs. All together. Do you remember such a thing? And everything was so easy to understand. Just damned easy. AND FUN! We all laughed at the same parts, squealed at the same parts, and came away with the same sort of understanding
“…..Hell, and somewhere along the line, everything cracked open. Everything we thought we knew turned out to not be true.
“…..Do you know what things mean? Do you worry too much, or not enough, about what things mean? Do you know what your living room means, for example? See what I mean?”
Following her speech, Father Mumbles (Mike Iveson) sits at the piano, tinkles its keys, and introduces us to Mabrel and Colonel “Fritz” Fitzhubert (Laurena Allan and Vin Knight) in their home at 127 Whirlaway Drive. The priest, dressed like a bishop, goes into once-upon-a-time story mode, describing and explaining everything so clearly and fully – indeed, in such laborious and mundane detail – that this is really just a parody of storytelling.
The story he tells is of “Fritz” coming home to dinner, and their dinner being interrupted by Local Representative Wheatson (Greig Sargeant), who has been going door to door visiting his constituents to speak to them “about certain matters.” The couple invite him to dinner, but Mabrel says “Please keep in mind that we will prefer to have no dramatic action this evening.” (Not conventional dramatic action in any case.)
The local representative never says why he wanted to visit. Mabrel also adds the letter h to words that have no h, such as room (rhoom) and coffee (choffee). But they do talk about a Bible and tiny door, and apparently enter through it.
The scene ends with Fritz, a tired Death of A Salesman type working man, quoting the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: “An image costs as much labor to humanity as a new characteristic to a plant.”†
In a subsequent scene, they have passed into a chalet in the Swiss Alps…
Eventually we meet the Krampus, which eats naughty children, and witches who steal souls, and The Face of the Ghost of Jesus Christ, and a farmer who delivers a pig, who gives birth to toy piglets that flip around on stage, and Queen Patrice, the Deposed and Dethroned Grand Queen Empress, and The Cat Self-Hating Cat Butler, who listens to Collette Richland on the radio, and characters who turn into Roman soldiers and a mermaid, and a bellboy who was once the priest … and
At one point, one of the characters says he doesn’t know what’s going on. A member of the audience calls out “You and me both, buddy.” The house lights go up, the cast gathers on stage, and the man is ejected – he’s a plant, of course, although without any new characteristics.
When I stayed for Act II, rather than feeling envious of those who were on their way home to their comfortable beds, or eating some solid and recognizable food in a nearby restaurant, I looked at the crazy tableaux created by the actors on the stage, and imagined that it was even later at night and that I was dreaming.
Fondly, Collette Richland
New York Theater Workshop
Written by: Sibyl Kempson
Created and performed by: Elevator Repair Service
Directed by: John Collins
Scenic Design and Additional Costumes: David Zinn
Costume Design: Jacob A. Climer
Lighting Design: Mark Barton
Sound Design: Ben Williams
Original Music: Mike Iveson
Additional Costumes: David Zinn
Associate Sound Designer and Sound Operator: Gavin Price
Property Designer: Amanda Villalobos
Assistant Property Design: Matt Leabo
Dance and Movement Coach: Katherine Profeta
Stage Manager: Maurina Lioce
Producer: Ariana Smart Truman
Production Manager: David Nelson
Associate Producer: Lindsay Hockaday
Assistant Set Design: Tim McMath
Father Mumbles / Hans-Pierre: Mike Iveson
Mabrel Fitzhubert: Laurena Allan
Colonel “Fritz” Fitzhubert / Peggy Gladys: Vin Knight
Cat Butler / Clotilde: Susie Sokol or Sarah Willis
Local Representative Wheatsun: Greig Sargeant
Winnifr’d Bexell: Kate Benson
The Deposed & Dethroned Grand Queen Empress Queen Patrice / RMR: Lucy Taylor
Collette Richland / Dora Fitzhubert: April Matthis
Velede: Kaneza Schaal
Miss Glynn Grills / Face of the Ghost of Jesus Christ: Maggie Hoffman
Joan Ham Hobhouse: Lindsay Hockaday
Sailor Boy / The Krampus: Ben Williams
Running time: 2 and 1/2 hours, including an intermission.
Fondly, Collette Richland is scheduled to run through October 18, 2015
Update: The show has been extended to October 24. 2015