Arsenic & Old Lace – some thoughts

I never thought the words “let’s send him to Panama” would inspire such hilarity. Context is everything, of course. In this case the context involved actor Colin Fitz in the role of the mad Teddy Brewster who is labouring under the impression that he’s President Theodore Roosevelt and that the basement beneath his house is the Panama Canal… well, you can see the source of my hilarity.
But let me start from the beginning: I’m talking about MADC’s recent production of Arsenic & Old Lace, directed by Josette Ciappara. Joseph Kesselring’s play is a classic that I’ve always wanted to see produced in Malta, albeit with a certain trepidation. The line between black humour and plain cheese is a fine one. This particular story revolves around two sweet, old ladies who have taken up the rather dubious pastime of bumping off elderly gentlemen with a dash of poison in their wine; they are discovered by their nephew Mortimer, who in the meantime must also deal with crazy bro Teddy and even crazier bro Jonathan.
So many things can go wrong with this type of plot, but in this case they certainly didn’t, mainly thanks to a cast that slipped into its collective role seamlessly and that was evidently having as much of a blast as the audience.
This particular show came with many stars. Fitz’s Teddy Brewster brought just the right amount of crazy; throughout the evening, the audience was practically ready to yell “charge” (Brewster’s catchphrase) every time he showed up on stage. The success of the character had a lot to do with Fitz’s comic timing (spot on) and the fact that his style of humour is extremely natural.
Then there was Edward Mercieca’s Mortimer Brewster and his amazing facial expressions, which got funnier and funnier with every “colpo di scena”. Mercieca is blessed with one of those extremely communicative faces and just one look at his audience was usually enough to dissolve everyone into laughter. The first time he discovers a corpse in the window seat was one of the crowning points of the evening.
If Mercieca’s Mortimer was funny, the two old ladies themselves – played by Polly March and Marylu Coppini – were alternately hilarious and creepy. I could tell that March and Coppini were thoroughly enjoying themselves, slipping in a touch of mischief to their interpretation that only made their roles more believable and fun. I also loved Joe Depasquale’s Jonathan Brewster. Depasquale does mad, bad and psychotic really, but really well. His looming skills are impressive, as is the mad glint in his eyes and the way his voice transforms from soft and persuasive to crazy nutter you really don’t want to cross.
However, this is one case when the entire cast truly contributes to the success of the whole production. Colin Willis’s police officer with his hilarious monologue shouted from on top the coffee table; Kate De Cesare’s alternately innocent and minxy Elaine Harper… I could go on. The only element that jarred was the very opening of the play, where we had an assortment of zombies “taking over” the stage in what I found to be a tad over-protracted and needless. I also was not over-fond of the character of Dr Einstein, however this is more because of the way the role is written rather than due to any fault of the actor playing him. I found the humour a touch too slapstick when compared to the rest of the dialogue.
From the production side, the introduction of live piano music used as background score was a stroke of genius. Alex Vella Gregory brought to the play what a good soundtrack usually brings to a movie, successfully defining the mood of every scene. To conclude, if you missed out on Arsenic & Old Lace it was definitely your loss. Thumbs up.

An edited version of this post was published on The TV Guide  (The Times of Malta).

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