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Sunday, 3 June 2012

Review: The Matchmaker: Boy, Did We Need This

Seana McKenna as Dolly Levi.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

by Thornton Wilder
Directed by Chris Abraham, designed by Santo Loquasto

The Story: Wealthy but stingy merchant Horace Vandergelder of Yonkers, New York refuses to let his niece Ermengarde marry the artist she loves, although he intends to get remarried himself. He enlists the help of the matchmaker Dolly Levi to liaise with his intended, but she plots not only to help the young lovers, but also to marry Horace herself, and with that they all head to New York City.  Horace's oppressed clerks Cornelius and Barnaby long for excitement and head to the City too, where Cornelius falls for the milliner Irene Malloy, who just happens to be Horace's intended bride. Cornelius and Barnaby find they must dodge their boss at every turn, and only Dolly seems unperturbed as the zany events unfold.

Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker started out life as the failed play, The Merchant Of Yonkers. Borrowing heavily from the plots of Moliere's The Miser and Johann Nestroy's Einen Jux will er sich Machen, Wilder reworked it into the 1955 Tony-Award-winning play, which was in turn adapted into the 1964 stage musical Hello, Dolly (later filmed in 1969). While the musical and film are the stuff of frothy entertainment, Wilder intended his farcical play set in the late 19th century to be a satire on the new middle class that had sprung up mid-19th century, which employed plays with characters so broad that they were distant from the audiences watching them - which Wilder found boring and unchallenging. He presents a plot in The Matchmaker also so contrived, and yet he then breaks the fourth wall with a number of soliloquies aimed directly at the audience on such topics as vice and economics, topics meant to make the audience draw breath with recognition. It is a strange paradox that faces any director of this play.

Luckily, director Chris Abraham walks the line very well, with only one or two minor slips from the tightrope. One being the design by Santo Loquasto, very laden with props which distracts from the actors and occasionally trips them up, as in a too-long and scrambling Harmonia Gardens scene. (The costumes Mr. Loquasto created for the cast are beautiful however; each character has a distinct look that informs, from the bohemian sleeves of Flora to the shabby detached hem of Malachi.)

Minor quibble aside, Mr. Abraham has assembled another dream cast who also know the difference between farce and satire and can deliver both, occasionally coming briefly and hilariously out of character to do so.
Mike Shara and Josh Epstein as Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
The farcical heavy lifting comes from Mike Shara and Josh Epstein as the hapless Cornelius and Barnaby. Forced to drop to the ground as if shot, hide under tables, in closets and under women's clothing, their timing and dead-pan could not be better - think Tim Conway times two and you will just begin to get the picture. Mr. Epstein in particular was a revelation.

As their foils, Irene Malloy and Minnie Fay, Laura Condlln and Andrea Runge are equally memorable. Ms. Condlln is a spirited, infectiously joyous Irene, while Ms. Runge's Minnie is timid, sweet and a wonderfully enchanting drunk. In fact, these four actors nearly steal the show from under the noses of the leads.
Mike Shara, Laura Condlln, Andrea Runge and Josh Epstein as Cornelius, Irene Malloy, Minne Fay and Barnaby.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
The other actor who very nearly does so is Nora McLellan as Miss Flora Van Huysen. Although she does not appear until late in the second half of the play, Ms. McLellan is instantly memorable, so wonderfully has she interpreted Flora as an overly dramatic disappointed diva. Ms. McLellan turns in what would be the 11th-hour performance if this were the musical and not the play.

Tripling up roles as the Joe the barber, Rudolph the waiter and Joe the cabman is the ever versatile John Vickery, utterly drole in each character; although as Rudolph the waiter he is briefly outshone by Victor Dolhai as the uptight, panic-stricken and sobbing August.

Tom McCamus as Horace Vandegelder.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Setting creepy aside (see Cymbeline) for his role as Horace Vandergelder, Tom McCamus gives him all the pompous bluster of the newly wealthy miser, with the booming voice to match. Although Mr. McCamus's voice resembles that of a platoon sergeant from time to time, this is understood to have been a deliberate choice when the audience applauds after another character comments, "He doesn't understand you, Mr. Vandergelder. You'd better speak louder."

The actor who speaks this line - dead-pan of course - is Geraint Wyn Davies as Malachi Stack. With the lovely Welsh lilt which has become an audience favourite, Mr. Wyn Davies infuses Malachi with  kindliness, becoming a genial fellow who is clear-sighted despite his love of whisky. If Vandegelder is Lear, Malachi is his unheeded fool.

Seana McKenna plays the title character with warmth and a twinkle, but instead of being a detached puppeteer for the others, Ms. McKenna finds the underlying pathos of Dolly as well. Yes, Dolly is meddlesome and is so because it amuses her, but this Dolly has a sense of urgency about her - she is poor, and the audience feels this pressing on her throughout the performance in fleeting worried looks, a nervous hand-gesture here, a slight twitch there. Ms. McKenna delivers the penultimate soliloquy on money and humanity, and the immediacy of her words for today's economic climate is clear - precisely as the playwright intended. If there is any criticism for the direction of the play as a whole, it is a wish for there to have been more such poignancy in between the (admittedly delightful) pratfalls.

Chris Abraham's period production is refreshing, charming and surprisingly relevant, for all it being set more than a century ago. Go see it, and splurge for the good seats. It will not disappoint.

The Matchmaker continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 27th.

Seana McKenna as Dolly Levi.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.


  1. Oh my goodness, yes!! If you love to laugh from the sheer pleasure of seeing a masterful cast work their magic, and then think about the message on the drive home, this is the play for you.


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