by David Lally · December 1, 2014
Erica Knight, Kevin Sebastian | Alex Roe
Originally produced in 1920, Rollo’s Wild Oat, written by Claire Beecher Kummer, is the latest offering from the Metropolitan Playhouse.
The plot concerns Rollo Webster, a man with one sole ambition - to play Hamlet on Broadway. With an inheritance and an acting company, he has two-thirds of what he needs to realize his dream. If only he had any talent. There are some very charming scenes in this slight, but gentle comedy. The opening is a study in subtle, underplayed comic timing and the scene where Mrs. Park-Gales, a very patrician actress now playing Gertrude, shows Goldie MacDuff, who has been cast as Ophelia, how to act the part to convey the meaning of the lines, is comically absurd.
The acting, too, is delightful. If you go only to see the show-stealing performance of Joe Joyce as Hewston, the butler and frustrated Shakespearian actor, you will get your money’s worth. He almost walks away with the show. Also playing their roles to the hilt are Page Clements as Mrs. Park-Gales (and later in a total switcheroo, the hapless maid Bella) and Timothy C. Goodwin as actor George Lucas, a British fop, who may or may not be very bright. And all Wendy Merritt has to do is enter the stage and give a look and you immediately get where Aunt Lane is coming from. Ms. Merritt has turned withering looks into a fine art.
As straight-arrow Rollo, Kevin Sebastian gives an engaging performance – we really root for this guy. As his sister, Lydia, Alexis Hyatt is also quite charming. As Rollo’s love interest Goldie MacDuff, Erica Knight’s performance felt a bit off. In all fairness, the part of Goldie is oddly written as she is the only character who doesn’t seem to have any ambition or goals (and suffers from a 1920s version of low self-esteem) so it’s hard to root for Rollo winning her. There were times I warmed up to Goldie, but not enough to care about the romance. She is a very sad-sack character.
The set design by Alex Roe is beautiful with wooden cutouts of Hamlet clutching Yorick’s skull in silhouette and a beautiful marble looking floor. There is an upstage platform which runs the length of the stage, though it was used only sporadically. The lighting by Christopher Weston is always appropriate and subtle. But the crown jewel (so to speak) in this production is the breathtaking costume work from Sidney Fortner. I have seen countless shows that Sidney has costumed and I believe she has topped herself here. The show is a veritable costume parade and has to be as not only does the show span several days in Spring (so hats, coats, gloves, walking sticks), we get to see the performance of Hamlet in full traditional Shakespearean costume. Each costume is perfect, down to the smallest detail, and I defy anyone who can point out to me better costume work being done in this city right now on such a small budget. Everyone looks marvelous.
But the sum of its parts does not equal the whole in this case. The play, which celebrates vaunting ambition, society folly, and thespian excess, is very dated, and takes an awfully long time to get to its point and it seems to be unclear as to what it wants to be. Is it simply a tale about Rollo, a member of the high class dabbling in the business of the low class (the theatre)? Is it a gentle romance about two young lovers (actors) mirroring a similar romance of long ago? Or is it a spoof of actors and audiences revering Shakespeare to the point of pageantry and artifice and feel it is sacrilege when a director wants to tell the story a different way? Well, that’s the problem. It’s a little bit of everything. It’s pleasant enough, but seems to keep shifting as it goes along. It’s a rare misstep for the Metropolitan, which is usually so adept at picking plays that are pertinent to what is going on in today’s world.
It’s also a rare misstep for Director Michael Hardart. He hasn’t really made it clear what we are to focus on and so the focus is scattered. There are times that the actors don’t feel in sync or that they are even in the same play. At the performance I saw, cues were slow and it’s crucial for a comedy that pacing needs to be spot on, especially in this case as the play takes an awfully long time before it gets going, and as a result, a sense of languidness sets in.
It’s a solid production of a dated play but a curious choice for this season of Progress at the Metropolitan Playhouse.