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The Play That Goes Wrong
by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields
Directed by Melissa Rain Anderson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 15, 2019

Michael Keyloun, Ka-Ling Cheung, Evan Zes
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The expression “hilarity ensues” easily comes to mind when thinking of the Rep’s latest production, The Play That Goes Wrong. In fact, that expression itself is an accurate and succinct description of the play itself. While a lot goes on in this show, the emphasis is on physical comedy, mile-a-minute humor, and, especially, the element of surprise. It’s a wild and wacky show, even if it’s not really about anything other than generating as many laughs as possible, and the Rep’s version boasts an energetic, comedically gifted cast.

The basic conceit of this play is initially reminiscent of another celebrated farce that has been staged memorably at the Rep–Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. Like with that play, the basic idea is that a theatrical company is putting on a production, and nothing happens as planned. What’s different here is that the action begins before the play-within-a-play officially begins, as actors and “crew members” wander the house looking for a lost dog, or a Duran Duran CD, and sometimes enlisting audience members to help repair elements of the already-crumbling set. Eventually, the play’s director and star, Chris Bean (Michael Keyloun) enters and introduces his company–the Cornley University Drama Society–and their play, The Murder at Haversham Manor. Bean plays Inspector Carter, who is investigating the murder of Charles Haversham, played by Jonathan Harris (Benjamin Curns), who starts out the play lying “dead” on a couch and trying to stay “dead” as various mishaps occur around him. The story of the play involves trying to solve the murder amid the various intrigues that arise, involving Haversham’s fiancĂ©e, Florence Colleymore played by Sandra Wilkinson (Ruth Pfirdehirt), her brother Thomas played by Robert Grove (John Rapson), and Haversham’s brother Cecil played by Max Bennett (Matthew McGloin). There’s also bumbling butler, Perkins played by Dennis Tyde (Evan Zes). While the story plays out and gets more and more absurd as it goes along, lighting and sound operator Trevor Watson (Ryan George) and stage manager Annie Twilloil (Ka-Ling Cheung) become increasingly involved in the antics onstage as well, in increasingly surprising and hilarious ways.

This isn’t the most original of concepts, but a show like this depends on the execution, timing, and energy more than a witty script. The fictional show-within-a-show is basically a stock English murder mystery, and the characters are stock concept characters, but the “play-within-a-play” conceit adds to the humor in that we see the actors acting—one who’s constantly appearing at the wrong time, another who repeatedly mispronounces words, another who responds enthusiastically to audience applause and hams it up accordingly. The stage crew members also become unexpectedly enlisted in the onstage performance, and a hilarious competition ensues as a result. More laughs come in the form of physical comedy, pratfalls, mishaps, and general mayhem that involves the actors, the props, and gradually more and more elements of the set. I won’t give too much away in terms of detail, but I will say that there are so many jokes and gags here that once you start laughing, it’s hard to stop because there’s always something that comes along to add to the pandemonium.

In a show like this in which everything is so chaotic, precision in the staging is essential, and director Melissa Rain Anderson has impressively managed to order the mayhem with energy and style. The technical aspects here are wondrous, as well, especially in the form of Peter and Margery Spack’s spectacularly whimsical set, which is the source of a lot of the unexpected humor here. There’s also top-notch lighting by Kirk Bookman and sound by Rusty Wandall, as well as delightfully colorful costumes by Lauren T. Roark.

The casting here assembles some stalwart comedy veterans of the Rep along with other impressive performers making their Rep debuts. Everyone is excellent, with strong comic timing and deliciously over-the-top performances, with the standouts being Keyloun and Rapson for their impressive physical comedy, McGloin for his delightful self-satisfied mugging, Zes for his expertly inept use of language as well as physicality, and especially Cheung for her increasingly determined, delightfully deadpan turn as stage manager and last-minute understudy.

The Play That Goes Wrong is a hilarious closer for the Rep’s 2018-2019 season, the last under retiring Artistic Director Steven Woolf. It’s one of those “throw in all the jokes and see what happens” kind of shows, staged with energy, style, and a lot of impressive technical prowess. It’s not the cleverest or wittiest of its type, but it’s still a whole lot of fun.

Ruth Pferdehirt, Matthew McGloin
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Play That Goes Wrong until April 7, 2019

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