Dec 7, 2009

The Sweet Smell of The Season

There are very few truly delicious, filling dishes to be had, at least in theatrical terms, amidst the saccharine offerings through the Christmas season. Everything is so sweet and frothy, it’s enough to make one’s teeth rot from the cutesy-overload. So it was with more than a little curiosity that I attended the opening of Miklos Laszlo’s 1937 play Parfumerie at the Young Centre last week. What did this have to do with the season?, I wondered. Why choose an old, rarely-performed work to fill out the last gasp of the admittedly-varied 2009 Soulpepper season? Where’s my Scrooge?

As it turns out, my fears were calmed and entirely unfounded –and I didn’t miss the old Dickens chestnut one bit. Parfumerie is a truly perfect choice for the silly season, and a beautifully romantic, thought-full way of ending the year. Laszlo’s endearing, romantic work centers on the activities of a Budapest beauty shop in the 1930s. As Associate Artist Paula Wing notes in the show programs, Laszlo nicely integrates all the people he knew and observed in his home city, from the “well-heeled denizens” of posh Buda, to the working-class shop clerks and service employees of bustling Pest. The tension between them, while extant, also highlights the struggles and heartaches of each, and ultimately the work celebrates humanity in a grandly messy, heady mix of zany comedy and serious drama. No wonder the work has been adapted so frequently; one musical (She Loves Me) and three films (The Shop Around The Corner, The Good Old Summertime, and You’ve Got Mail) have all taken as their basis the Laszlo original, of unknown love amidst the hustle and bustle of the season.

The plot is more of a premise, but it's rich with character exploration and theatrical possibility. The employees of Hammerschmidt and Company, a beauty shop, race around to prepare for the holidays, while revealing their inner lives in small but telling ways. Two of the shop’s employees, the scatty Rosana Balaz (Patricia Fagan) and the uptight George Asztalos (Oliver Dennis) are constantly sparring, spitting insults at one another and rolling their eyes in frustration. As it turns out, each has been unknowingly exchanging love letters with the other. This undercurrent of unspoken and unknown affection is the premise that fuels the action around the other subplots, involving the cheating wife of the owner, Mr. Hammerschmidt (Joseph Ziegler), who suspects George as the seducer. Dennis is keen at widening his big eyes and using his considerable experience in physical comedy to convey the confusion of a man who pipes up in his work but shuts down in his emotions. It’s refreshing to see Dennis finally play a romantic lead, too, particularly since he’s almost always cast as the amusing sideman.

Equally, Ziegler, who usually plays Scrooge for Soulpepper this time of year, brings a load of heart to the huffy boss. He employs stiff body language and keen, knowing silence to punctuate the new adaptation by Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins. This smart approach brings a kind of Chekhovian gloom to the proceedings (not entirely unsuitable, considering the infamous “Suicide Song” originated in Hungary) and a deep thoughtful quality to his performance, making Hammerschmidt less officious and more human, fallible, and ultimately, vulnerable.


This vulnerability especially extends to the way in which director Morris Panych has staged the scenes between the male employees. Mr. Sipos (Michael Simpson) sits on the shop’s round settee and shares a guilty secret with George at one point, their faces both portraits of pain and genuine confusion. It’s not difficult to recall a similar scene of understanding staged earlier between Mr. Hammerschmidt and his eager-beaver delivery boy, Arpad (Jeff Lillico), who acts as a kind of default son to the childless boss. Arpad runs to bring his crusty boss breakfast the night after an attempted suicide which the delivery boy helped to prevent. Ziegler balances a mix of gruff dismissal and shame-faced grief, while Lillico is wonderfully pure in channeling his character's fierce protectiveness for his boss. There is a real hum of affection and a moving frankness between the male characters that is entirely in keeping with Laszlo's loving look at human relationships.

In watching these scenes, I was reminded of Soulpepper’s production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple two seasons ago, where a similar tone of male understanding rang through many scenes. It’s this tender vulnerability that immediately gets shut away the minute any women appear, in both Simon’s or Laszlo’s worlds, as if a man betraying what could be perceived as weakness is unforgivable and entirely unfathomable. The Hungarian playwright uses the letters between George and Rosie to create a bridge, however –between genders, life experience, perspectives, and ideas, allowing a greater intimacy to creep in as a result of both characters allowing themselves to be vulnerable not only on paper, but face-to-face. You’re torn between wanting to stand up and cheer, or softly sigh, when George finally tells Rosie he’s actually the man behind the Abelard-and-Heloise poetics within the letters.

This beautiful bridging could’ve only happened with the care and class of director of Morris Panych, really. The award-winning director and playwright guides his gifted cast with a keen, knowing hand, playing up the comedy of the piece at one moment, turning down the volume to allow the drama to come through at others. We barely notice the shifting tenor of moments as he expertly navigates the emotional landscape Pettle and Robbins have laid out, and it’s a relief, because a work like Parfumerie could so easily veer into the trite and ineffectual, becoming another puffy comedy piece set in a pink-heart world. But, just as he did with The Trespassers at the Stratford Festival this past summer, Panych carefully reveals the layers of tender humanity contained within Laszlo's world -with humour, patience, understanding, and affection. With Parfumerie, we have a marvelous, moving night of truly delightful theatre, with just the right touch of holiday spirit. Tooth-rotting, cutesy sugar plum shows be damned –this is exactly the sort of Christmas meal I wanted. Thanks again, Soulpepper. Yum yum.

All Parfumerie photographs by Cylla von Tiedmann.

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