Trust the Farce

ae guardsmanJewel Theatre delivers witty backstage comedy ‘Enter the Guardsman’

It’s a plot as old as the theater itself: a husband disguises himself as another man to try to woo his own wife and test her fidelity. It was already a little creaky when Hungarian dramatist Ferenc Molnar made it the basis of his 1910 farce The Guardsman, which was translated into a popular vehicle for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine in 1924. But it gets a fresh update, with lively songs and an irresistible backstage setting in Enter the Guardsman, the second offering in Jewel Theatre Company’s 10th Anniversary season.

With a witty script by Scott Wentworth, the show features original songs from composer Craig Bohmler and lyricist Marion Adler. JTC fans will rejoice to hear that this is the same trio whose earlier collaboration, the terrific film noir musical Gunmetal Blues, was a popular JTC production a couple of seasons back. The source material isn’t quite as dynamic for Enter the Guardsman, but director Art Manke’s impressive staging, Kent Dorsey’s wonderful set and lighting design, and a great cast make for an entertaining evening of theater.

Set in the early Downton Abbey era just before the First World War, the story unfolds entirely backstage at a theater, where a popular actor and actress hold forth every night onstage. But after six months of marriage in real life, the Actor (David Ledingham) is beginning to wonder if his wife is growing bored with him. He worries that she’s reached “the maximum length of her romantic attention span.” Indeed, his wife and onstage partner, the Actress (Marcia Pizzo), fears that the routine of married life may be the death of romance. “Marriage is a very long run,” dryly agrees her Dresser (the always effective Diana Torres Koss) and backstage confidante.

Prowling about on the edge of the action is the Playwright, played to sly and silky perfection by David Arrow. He acts as both the narrator, drawing the audience into the tale, and instigator for the drama onstage. Ever in search of new twists on old plots, and eager to find out “what happens to romance after the curtain falls,” he provides a sounding board for the Actor’s worst fears.

It doesn’t take long for the Actor to work himself into a frenzy. Determined to test his wife’s loyalty, he tells her he has an out-of-town engagement for a few days, then disguises himself as a Guardsman, a dashing military man complete with foreign accent and fake goatee, cap, boots, and a chest full of brass and braid. Taking credit for the “anonymous” roses (sent by her husband) that have been flooding her dressing room, he presents himself to the Actress backstage as a devoted admirer—and willing seducer. What will she do?

The plot ticks along like clockwork over the play’s fleet couple of hours, but it’s the production that earns the kudos here. The cast manages to turn what is basically a story of insecurity, wanderlust, and mistrust into something light and breezy. As full of bravura as he is, Ledingham’s Actor is never so pompous that he loses his likeability, while Pizzo’s charming Actress is both gutsy and yearning. The backstage team of Koss, Steven Guire Knight, Allen Darby and Danielle Crook are great fun as a singing Greek chorus, commenting on the action.

All of them do justice to Adler’s clever songs. The ensemble piece, “She’s A Little Off,” is a wry showstopper. Arrow and Koss perform a delicious tango to the showbiz paean, “Drama,” and Arrow delivers the Playwright’s ode to the writing craft, “They Die,” with plenty of verve—all of them ably accompanied by Musical Director Colin Hannon on piano.

B. Modern’s deft costumes evoke the period, especially the Actress’s elegant, layered gowns. But the real star of the show is Dorsey’s brilliant set, a plain brick wall behind the actors’ dressing tables on which is projected the interior of a grand theatre—its audience facing us—to which the Actor and Actress play their parts in pantomime, beyond a scrim, whenever they go “onstage” to perform. It’s a nifty extra layer of illusion in show that celebrates the place where art and fantasy collide.

The Jewel Theatre Company production of ‘Enter The Guardsman’ plays through Nov. 30 at Center Stage, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. For ticket information, call 425-7506, or visit PHOTO: STEVE DIBARTOLOMEO Marcia Pizzo and David Ledingham in Jewel Theatre’s ‘Enter The Guardsman.’

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