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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The Fantastics

Or: A Time to Pretend

The story is an old one: a boy, a girl, their fathers, and a wall between their houses. Matt (Matt Dial) and Louisa (Rosemarie Chandler) are mid-tumble into their adult lives and, consequently, are both quite loquacious, zest-filled, and insane. Their fathers, Hucklebee (Wes Humphrey) and Bellomy (Jared Corak), old friends and fellow gardeners have concocted an elaborate faux-feud, to ensure their kids fall in love with each other. All they need now is an intrusion, a spice of danger and a reason to end the quarrel. To this end they enlist the help of our gently roguish narrator, El Gallo (Benton Bailey) to stage a “polite adduction”. But things turn sour when the “scenic turns cynic”, the lovers reconsider if they are right for each other, and El Gallo begins to harbor finer feelings for his leading lady.

Truth be told, I’m not that fond of The Fantastics. Though refreshingly simple to produce (all you need is a box, a curtain, one piano, one percussionist and a harp), the book (which surfeits of whimsey) and score (as dizzying as an Escher painting), too often override the incorporation of the audience’s imagination and create a muddled world that feeds off of cheep tricks, suckles sloppiness, and drag certain numbers like a sloths bedtime blanket. But it can make you laugh, and laugh heartily, and as long as you have laughter, and can sprinkle in the odd notes of sweetness for taste, there is very little you cannot make palatable.

Jessie Kluter, the director of this production very wisely choose to play up the humor of The Fantastics and let the bones of irony and satire fall as they pleased. Squeezing it inside Josh Gordon’s quaint white canvas set, which resembles both a nursery and a wedding pavilion, Kluter kicks up a wild rumpus as the Fathers jig, singing of their love of vegetables, the lovers fizz about the appropriate metaphor for their feelings, and El Gallo and his compatriots swash and buckle about, the flynniest of flynns. There are times when the choreography becomes too wild and elaborate, more suitable for a larger space and an audience not quite within flying foot range. But in the final fifteen minutes Kluter wrangles the play into what it it should be: simple and sweet and very much alive, relying only on our attention, an artists conviction, and a few sweet, uncomplicated tunes.

Chandler possess the most amazing eyes; they wax and wane with Luisa’s lunacy and lucidity, visible valves of her great swells and deflations. She also possesses an on point soprano but we often lose exactly what she is saying in the flash of some vocal trick. Dial matches her energy but in a subdued way, always articulate and wry (All we need to know about Matt is summed up by Dial in, “There’s this girl”). His is more of the dreamy madness, favoring the slow burn rather than frequent flairs. Both act AT rather than WITH each other, as the script requires them to, but by “They Were You”, both actors prove they can kindle and maintain a true affection and a lovely harmony. Before that point however they are often swallowed up by Humphrey and Corak, whose delight in bluster and cheekiness all too often steal the show. As for our beloved Narrator, Bailey’s rough voice pulls us through the beloved “Try to Remember” with a smooth sweep and his elastic limbs and winning smile serve him well as he luxuriates in the comfortable waters of playing the lovable rouge. As his involvement in his story, and his attachment to his heroine, grows stronger though, Bailey shows himself a deft hand at not so well hidden regret, desperation, and heeldom.

But for the spot on and warm performances I find that my enjoyment of the evening, and the redemption of the play was most bound up in Henry (Anna Basile) and Mortimer (Justine Gelfman), too old actors who El Gallo hires to help with the abduction, specializing in Shakespeare and Death Scenes, respectively. It is such a joy to listen as Basile, clear as a bell and twice as commanding, passionately mash and mangle the treasures of the English Language, and drop some of the most explosive Shakespearian puns, while Gelfman silently watches, her face an uproarious plastique stamped with pride, displeasure and eyepopping agonies of rigor mortis. Both embody what the Fantastics ought to be, a gift of joy to the audience an example of holding tight to the finer thoughts even as they dissolve, the injunction to pretend, to overlook all the jumble and the muddle, to “remember me in light”. And this is where Kluter and her company triumphs, in taking this odd fellow of a play that has so strangely survived so many years; to be lighthearted and whimsical as they like but remain prepared for when the snow falls.

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