Review: ‘Fondly, Collette Richland’ Offers Open-Eyed Dreaming
Let’s go dreaming, shall we? C’mon, it’ll be fun. Nothing will make any sense at all, and everything will make perfect sense. You’ll feel that you’re in a wild, bright land that you didn’t know existed, but one that you’re still somehow sure that you’ve visited before. What’s more, this is a dream — one of the most entertaining you’re ever likely to have — that you get to experience while you’re wide-awake.
Time was when such an invitation involved a sugar cube, a chemical and a medicine dropper. But Elevator Repair Service has come up with a head trip that is as organic as it is delirious. It’s called “Fondly, Collette Richland.” And though what opened on Monday night at New York Theater Workshop is advertised as a play, it is far closer to what happens in the privacy of your own mind when you’re in bed with your unconscious.
Turning seemingly passive, interior activities into externalized, dynamic theater is what Elevator Repair Service does. This is the troupe that transformed the experience of reading a great book into a glorious marathon play with “Gatz,” a word-for-word rendering of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
Sibyl Kempson’s “Fondly, Collette Richland,” directed by John Collins, is unusual for Elevator Repair Service in that it is an original play (and I use “original” advisedly). But despite its being written specifically for the theater, a perusal of its script suggests that this long and ambling work would pose seemingly insurmountable challenges to a stage director.
For it occurs in a world in which everything seems to keep shifting — setting, language, human identity. And its reasons for doing so, it would appear, are far from frivolous. Ms. Kempson’s text comes with quotations from the likes of Rilke and the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, and includes aperçus like “An image costs as much labor to humanity as a new characteristic to a plant.”
When one bewildered character says early that he doesn’t have a single clue as to what’s going on, someone in the audience yells, “You and me both, buddy.” Never mind that this rude interrupter turns out to be a member of the troupe. He’s surely speaking for many of us.
On second thought, no, he’s not. Because by this time, “Fondly” has gathered such a head of narrative steam that you’re happy to ride it wherever it takes you. Elevator Repair Service is using every trick, flamboyant and invisible, at its disposal to keep you not only diverted but also ensnared by a labyrinthine plot that is part 1950s soap opera, part vintage Gothic, part ontological detective story and part classic theater of the absurd, à la Ionesco, Pirandello and Albee.
Our immersion in this alternative universe reflects that of the stolidly married couple at its center, Mabrel (Laurena Allan) and Fritz Fitzhubert (Vin Knight), whose life, as we first see it, is as regimented as a barracks soldier’s. But one night, when they are having their meal at exactly the same time as always, a knock is heard at the door.
“Please keep in mind that we prefer to have no dramatic action this evening,” calls out Mabrel, who speaks with the kinked formality of an Ivy Compton-Burnett character. Fortunately for us, that wish is not to be granted.
From the moment of that ominous knock, strange and unseemly events start happening. And you can’t blame the man who knocked, a placid fellow who introduces himself as “Local Representative Wheatsun” (Greig Sargeant), or their other, newly materialized visitor, Winnifr’d Bexell (Kate Benson), Mabrel’s sister.
Cause and effect are never simple here, though what subsequently follows — which includes a trip to an Alpine luxury hotel ruled over by ghostly aristocrats and a strapping Rhine maiden and a mountain man — obviously has something to do with people’s connecting to what lies buried within them. Squint hard, and you could read Mabrel’s story as a sort of allegory of awakening, as conceived by a Wagnerian feminist.
Then again, don’t squint. Just lie back and revel in a world where deposed royalty steps out of the wallpaper; a six-legged pighound (a hybrid, and you should see its pups) produces milk that turns shy virgins into yelping Bacchantes; a cat in high heels mails itself to its masters’ new residence; Jesus Christ shows up on karaoke night to tell jokes; and women go wandering through perilous Alpine glaciers to return transformed — really transformed.
The technical team — which includes David Zinn (sets), Jacob A. Climer (costumes), Mark Barton (lighting) and Ben Williams (sound) — has created a witty, fastidiously wrought and thoroughly disorienting visual and aural universe in which the solid and the known keep melting at the edges. (Imagine a mise-en-scène invented by a drunken Wes Anderson.)
Anchors of sorts are provided by two semi-narrators, both priceless: Mike Iveson as a piano-playing priest (and later, hotel bellboy) and April Matthis as the title character, a radio host. It is she who provides the show’s introduction, evoking a time when families sat around radios to hear the same stories and have the same reactions. “And everything was easy to understand,” she says, in an eruption of angry nostalgia. “Everything was just damned easy. And fun.”
Against all reasonable expectations, you’ll find that watching “Fondly, Collette Richland” provides a similarly cozy communal glow. How often, after all, do you get to dream the same dream that everybody else is having?
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