Playhouse's take on Coward puts form before function.

I wouldn't help but overhear an elderly lady seated behind me, since she was forcefully projecting her full, drawling baritone with more gusto than your average actor. "It must mean something," she declared with winsome disdain and fragile finality, adding, "I hope I get it."

The woman and her friend were discussing the slickly designed deco set for Playhouse on the Square's odd, off-kilter take on Hay Fever. Noel Coward must have been busting a gut in his grave since his superficial-by-design peanut-butter parfait of a play is anything but meaningful. As Sorrel, the bratty young bohemian, says somewhere in Act Two, "We don't, any of us, ever mean anything." But you can't really fault the lady for assuming that any set which calls as much attention to itself as this one does must contain some sort of hidden message. The colorful and finely executed backdrop catches the eye but not the imagination, and the chunky furnishings and odd but innocuous objects of art fade into the woodwork. The smart, white deco screens that make up the set's walls are dandy indeed, each crowned with a green dot the exact color and shape of a dried wasabi pea. But even as attractive as they are, they aren't worth wondering over for very long. What sets this extra-artificial environment apart is that the stage is built on a ridiculously steep angle. It's more like a skateboard ramp than a stage. The furnishings -- sofa, chairs, and baby grand, each shimmed up to square with a pile of books -- all stay put, it seems, out of sheer force of will. It is a world fallen horribly out of balance and perhaps more appropriate for bringing to life the absurd imaginings of Eugene Ionesco than those of the merely whimsical Coward. Above all, it appears to be deeply meaningful, and yet it is not. It is the principal sight gag in the giddy parade of sight gags which make up this hammy, fast-paced, and generally delightful production.

Hay Fever's premise is so sketchy one would swear it had been written by committee, though the script does gain a bit of complexity by the sheer lengths to which its already thin plot is stretched. Each of the four egomaniacal members of the Bliss household has, unbeknownst to the other, invited a potential romantic interest to come and stay for the weekend. Once the guests arrive, the various family members, who delight in the sheer meanness of playing overly theatrical head games, begin a process of wooing that might very well be considered harassment by modern standards. And then they all switch partners and woo some more until the guests have no choice but to run for their lives. No doubt the revelers from Richard O'Brien's Rocky Horror Show, as perverse and extreme as they are, take their cues from Coward's Bliss family, which at times appears to be from another (sexually dysfunctional) planet.

Ann Marie Hall plays Judith Bliss, the aging actress, earth mother, and flirty-now/icy-later seductress-like a woman who really, really, really wants to thank the academy. No gag spared, no scenery left unchewed. Though she is perhaps overshadowed by the set and certainly informed by Carol Burnett's Nora Desmond, Bliss is Hall's most boldly drawn character since As Bees in Honey Drown, and except for a few strained moments it is an absolute delight.

Guy Oliveri, as Simon Bliss, scampers about the stage like a helium-filled gibbon. Gravity is meaningless, and his use of furniture in lieu of stairs gives the play an edgy Escher-like vibe. Nora Ottley Stillman is a bit more commonplace but no less effective as Simon's sister Sorel. While Dave Landis' take on the family patriarch is loud and less nuanced than it could be he gets the job done well, and the stylized posturing of Renee Davis as vapid flapper Jackie Coryton strikes a perfect balance between overacting and understatement. It's as if she is constantly posing to have her portrait painted on a cola tin. As Carla, the dresser turned housekeeper, Karin Hill comes off like a limey Ann B. Davis.

The costumes are all garish takes on flapper-era chic and painstakingly detailed. Kim Justice, as Myra, who may be the closest thing the play has to a conscience, is so done up in spangles and spit-curls she looks as if she might shatter like an antique porcelain doll if you even looked at her harshly. It makes her foot-stomping tantrums that much more satisfying.

Director John Fagan has created giddy choreography for every moment of Hay Fever and set a breakneck tempo for the show. It's the kind of relentless romp you seldom see anywhere other than in a Marx Brothers film, and it's tasty. But a jot less whimsy and a little more work on establishing relationships could have made it even better. n

Hay Fever at Playhouse on the Square through May 20th.

Diary Of a Madman

When Spurt of Blood opens at TheatreWorks on a double bill with E.E. Cummings' Santa Claus Friday, May 11th, Memphians will have an incredibly rare opportunity to see a work by the 20th century's most significant yet least performed dramatic artist. Plagued by mental illness, poet, playwright, and theorist Antonin Artaud spent his entire life in and out of asylums. It is only fitting that Our Own Voice Theatre Company, an organization dedicated to the creation and performance of original dramatic material by mental health-care consumers, would choose to mount Spurt of Blood, Artaud's seemingly unstageable combination of ritual and poetry.

Over the past decade, this ridiculously unappreciated group has, under the guiding hand of artistic director Bill Baker, applied the thinking of progressive theorists like Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal to create original works such as the screamingly funny send-up of the local theater community Ephemera, the bizarre yet poignant This Is Not An Outlet, and the only rock opera in existence that really rocks Supergroups A+. In short (and in spite of the group's perennial lack of trained actors), Our Own Voice makes the most consistently innovative, interesting, and complex theater in Memphis.

The foundations of Artaud's theories are really quite simple, if, in the end, their application seems close to impossible. "It has not been definitively proved," he wrote in his book The Theatre and its Double, "that the language of words is the best possible language. And it seems that on the stage, which is above all a space to fill and a place where something happens, the language of words may have to give way before a language of signs whose objective aspect is the one that has the most immediate impact on us." The goal was to create "a directly communicative language": aural and visual pheromones, if you will. He believed that the world was diseased and, as a result, humanity was diseased. His Theatre of Cruelty, which is not so much cruel as it is jarring to the senses, is, holistically speaking, the great panacea. Informed by the art of the Mannerists, who often lumped dozens of disparate subjects and actions into their intensely symbolic paintings, Artaud's vision for the theater was not entirely unlike hypnotism. It was designed to possess the audience and control them utterly -- but for their own good. This aspect of Artaud's work led British innovator and one-time Artaudian advocate Peter Brook to claim that the Theatre of Cruelty was, at its core, flawed by fascism. By Brook's achingly liberal definition, a roller-coaster ride would likewise be a fascist event.

Santa Claus (Spurt of Blood) at TheatreWorks May 11th- 13th.

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