We often make jokes about that which scares or hurts us the most. It’s a way many of us cope with a world that can often feel needlessly cruel and absurd. It’s because of this need to laugh in the face of darkness that a comedy such as Joseph Kesselring’s play Arsenic and Old Lace has such an enduring quality. After all, there’s something strangely captivating about discovering the layer of rotten silt under a veneer of respectability. The Ottawa Little Theatre’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace, directed by Brian Cano, is a delightfully relaxing romp, despite its dark plot. There are some minor issues with pacing, but its combination of adept directing, brilliant acting, and sumptuous sets make for a cozy evening at the theatre.
For those unfamiliar with the story, it revolves around the Brewster family of Brooklyn, proud descendants from the Mayflower by lineage, they are also homicidal maniacs. Our hero is Mortimer Brewster, a famous drama critic who, much to his righteous horror, must deal with a slew of family drama. First of all, it turns out that his two sweet spinster aunts spend their spare time poisoning lonely old men who come to stay with them, only to bury them in their cellar, complete with services befitting the church they belong to. His one brother, Teddy, is convinced he is President Teddy Roosevelt and spends him time as an unwitting accomplice to his aunts’ nefarious activities. As if this weren’t enough, Mortimer’s long-estranged other brother, Jonathan, a wanted murderer and Boris Karloff lookalike, comes bursting back into their lives at the peak of his distress.
Kesselring’s 1941 play was a hit on broadway when it came out, running for more than 1400 performances before moving to London. It’s pretty easy to see why – the script is fast-paced, clever, and irreverent. It requires dynamic directing and energetic performances to keep up with it and The Ottawa Little Theatre’s production delivers for the most part. Carno’s directing matches the irreverence of the script and the staging is a success overall. However, for play so full of action, it does drag on toward the end of Act 1, which results in the two halves of the play feeling off-balance.
The ensemble is tight and the actors infuse their characters with charm. Sarah Hearn and Janet Banigan make for wonderfully dotty sisters. Their pacing is spot-on and keeps the viewer glued to their every word and they play their characters as simultaneously loveable and sinister, making them all that much more unsettling. Kurt Shantz is a very believable everyman as Mortimer Brewster, who is thrown into a blind panic. His facial expressions alone convey the absolute absurdity of the situation he finds himself in. Dan Desmarais find a perfect balance in Teddy Brewster by showing his madness and playing him for a laugh without once slipping into caricature or mockery. Paul Williamson makes a good Jonathan Brewster, even pulling off a very convincing Chicago gangster accent, and his accomplice Dr. Einstein, played by Claude Laroche has the best comedic timing in a production full of it. George Koutsos as the ever hopeful (and ever-long winded) aspiring playwright Officer O’Hara is delightfully awkward and clueless.
Andrea Vecsei’s set design and Gillian Siddiqui’s costume design pull the play together and are both opulent and detailed, recalling a past, cozy time of bourgeois upper classes in impressive detail and further add to the atmosphere of the play.
For a fun night at the theatre, I would highly recommend Arsenic and Old Lace, especially in these unsettling times when the news delivers absurdity and terror on a daily basis.
Reviewed by Maja Stefanowska Photo Maria Vartanova
Arsenic and Old Lace
Written By: Joseph Kesselring
Director: Brian Cano
Assistant Director: Nadine Cheney
Lighting Design Larry Davies
Costume Design Gillian Siddiqui
Sarah Hearn Abby Brewster
Stephen Beneteau Rev. Dr. Harper
Dan Desmarais Teddy Brewster
Howard Kaplan Officer Brophy
Ryan Van Buskirk Officer Klein
Janet Banigan Martha Brewster
Mary Whalen Elaine Harper
Kurt Shantz Mortimer Brewster
Bill Milner Mr. Gibbs (and dead bodies)
Paul Williamson Jonathan Brewster
Claude Laroche Dr. Einstein
George Koutsos Officer O’Hara
Philippe Gagnon Lieutenant Rooney
Running: October 25 – November 11, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.
Matinee: October 29 & November 5, 2017 at 2:00 p.m