Highlands Summer Festival staging of Arsenic and Old Lace has audience laughing for more 0
The Highlands Summer Festival actors Beth Kipping, as Abby Brewster, left, Will van der Zyl, as Mortimer Brewster, and Lauren McInnes, as Martha Brewster, had the opening night audience laughing in their staging of the dark comedy Arsenic and Old Lace.
It’s quite a feat to make people forget a classic … even one that stars Cary Grant and is directed by Frank Capra.
But the Highlands Summer Festival is dead close if the response from audience members of comedy-farce Arsenic and Old Lace is any indicator.
A standing ovation followed the July 16 opening of the festival’s staging of the production, written by Joseph Kesselring about a pair of “nice old ladies.”
The lonely old men who visit the home of these “nice” ladies end up poisoned by arsenic-laced elderberry wine and are then buried in the cellar of their quiet Brooklyn home.
Comedy ensues as a macabre discovery leaves visiting nephew Mortimer Brewster, played by Highlands Festival newcomer Will van der Zyl, more than befuddled and shocked, as he attempts to come to terms with his murdering aunts and the challenge of figuring out how to keep it a secret from his fiancé and the law.
The farfetched nature of the story is ramped up to dizzying heights with rising body counts, bumbling and clueless police, and characters such as Mortimer’s mentally challenged brother Teddy who believes he is President Teddy Roosevelt (played excellently by Mike Jaycock), and long-lost brother Jonathon (played by Martin Gage).
Jaycock practically steals the first act with his intermittent dashes up the stairs, screaming “Chaaarge!” (a reference to the battle of San Juan Hill) and trips to the cellar for his aunts, who make him think he is digging the Panama Canal, to name a few.
When the physicality and silliness become a little too much, the two Brewster aunts – Martha played by Lauren McInnes and Abby played by Beth Kipping – rein it in with wordplay, gestures and timing.
The incongruity of the pair as killers is at the heart of the play’s humour. They speak about their murderous exploits like they were sewing a blanket or cooking a stew for the needy instead of anything untoward. It’s easy to simply think of them as a sweet pair of aunts any nephew could care for (or nearly die for).
Although the Hollywood movie version was released in 1944, starring Grant as Mortimer, the story has remained in the consciousness of its contemporaries and generations later. The Highlands two-hour-plus staging is close to this comedic classic in delivering the laughs, as the cast members execute their lines with the necessary timing. They hit their mark (literally at times) and follow through bringing to life the comedic pratfalls that made slapstick comedies from the golden age of cinema so successful. Knowledge of period language and political references from when the play was written helps but is not an absolute necessity to enjoy this performance.
For a play that was originally written more than 60 years ago, it still holds up well and is appropriate for most ages with its slapstick and witty dialogue.
When love interest Elaine asks Mortimer: “Have you gone mad?” He replies, “I don’t think so, but it’s only a matter of time.”
When he shares his reluctance to marry his fiancé, he explains: “Insanity runs in my family … it practically gallops.”
Gallop it does and so does this play.
The play runs every weeknight at the Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion in Haliburton at 8 p.m. until July 27. Tickets can be ordered online (www.highlandssummerfestival.on.ca), by mail, fax, in person or by phone 705-457-9933.