CLEVELAND - Let us toast, with arsenic-free elderberry wine of course, Cleveland's Great Lakes Theatre Festival for a wickedly funny production of the madcap, devilishly delicious 1939 farce "Arsenic and Old Lace."
Credit production director Drew Barr and Co. for recognizing the darkness in Joseph Kesselring's black comedy. It focuses on two kindly elderly sisters, Abby and Martha Brewster, who take lonely elderly men into their home and practice a rather twisted version of "charity."
They spike the elderberry wine they offer the gentlemen with arsenic, killing them (read "putting them out of their misery") and bury their bodies in their home's cellar. They think nothing of the act and are in fact glad they "helped ... their gentlemen."
Barr lends a ghostly aura to the production by having a group of make-up sporting actors play the dead guys. In between scenes, they walk around in zombie-like states, rearranging the furniture in the darkness between scenes, while frightful music plays. It's a nice creative touch that, while prolonging the play a bit, is appropriate for a ghost story.
Elements of horror are rare in comedies. But, one need look no further than "Beetlejuice" to see that as long as the horror element is not overdone, it doesn't detract from the comedy. Prolonged, intesnely frightening scenes with the ghost-playing actors would have done just that, but seeing them walking upright almost like programmed robots can elicit a chuckle or two.
Russell Metheny's scenic design also conveys a haunting atmosphere. The Brewster sisters' dusty old home, with brown rusty walls and a creaking door, looks like a mansion Count Dracula might purchase.
Then there's Dougfred Miller's sinister portrayal of Jonathan Brewster the sisters' crooked nephew who has returned to their home with plastic surgeon "Dr. Einstein." (M.A. Taylor, in a performance filled with nervous energy).
Miller methodical and hair-raising move toward Jonathan's brother, Mortimer in the second act is a fright of a delight to watch.
Irony, the unexpected, fuels "Arsenic's" laughs. The Brewster sisters draw so many laughs, because as kind and innocent as they are, they are the least people we'd expect to poison people. We also can't help but laugh at how they make nothing of their "charity"; it is as natural to them as washing dishes.
The performers must therefore portray the Brewster sisters as nonchalantly and motherly as possible. As a credit to them, Laura Perrotta and Lynn Allison have created two distinct personalities for their respective characters.
Perrotta delivers a belly laugh-inducing performance as Martha Brewster. With a hilarious New York accent, Perotta plays Martha as a lovable but senile lady who would have trouble finding the arsenic to mix with the wine, let alone making the concoction. Perotta is not funny, however, when she laughs at her own lines, something she did during Saturday night's performance.
Allison makes sibling Abby a motherly, sociable and devoted sort whom you would expect to find feeding the homeless at church.
One can find irony elsewhere in "Arsenic," particularly in Mortimer Brewster, Martha and Abbey's nephew, a theater critic who hates the theater. In a way, it is fitting he can't stand the stage; his aunts have been acting their whole life, fooling him into believing they are such sweethearts.
Mortimer, after finding out about his aunts' "charity" goes berserk with panic. It is a wonder Andrew May, who plays Mortimer, doesn't hyperventilate during his thoroughly over-the-top performance. May overdoes- it just a bit, even by the standards of a farce.
The Great Lakes Theatre Festival is dedicated to performing classic plays. So, what is "Arsenic," this zany little escapist play doing on its stage? Kesselring's play is a classic madcap comedy, with zany characters, a frantic pace and a madly inventive story with just enough exposition and a happily-ever-after ending.
It's now time to take out that elderberry wine (sans arsenic) for the toast...
IF YOU GO
WHAT: "Arsenic and Old Lace" by Joseph Kesselring
WHEN: Through Oct. 21. Various times.
WHERE: Playhouse Square Center's Ohio Theatre, Euclid Avenue, Cleveland
HOW MUCH: Prices vary. For ticket information, call (216) 241-6000.