Be careful what you wish for — you might just get it.
That’s what a typical British couple discover in the short play “The Man in the Bowler Hat” by A.A. Milne, which is being presented this weekend by the Island Theatre Workshop at the Grange Hall.
In this one-act comedy, Milne, best known for his “Winnie-the-Pooh” series, created a fantasy/adventure for grown-ups, and Vineyard audiences will be treated to a madcap comedy played by a talented troupe, along with staged readings of some of Milne’s beloved poems for children.
The play is subtitled “A Terribly Exciting Affair,” and so it turns out to be. We’re introduced to John and Mary and their snug, if somewhat humdrum, domestic life. The protagonists bemoan the fact that there is no excitement in their lives. After relating some fantasy scenarios, Mary complains, “Nothing like that ever happens in real life. At least not to us.”
Well, you can see where this is going. John and Mary are quickly thrust into the middle of a classic movie scenario. Action, adventure, romance, and mystery ensue, all presented as high melodrama and played for laughs.
Director Taffy McCarthy calls the play a spoof of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and Milne’s play is similarly a farce. However, it’s also a takeoff of the action/adventure movies of Milne’s day with stock characters — a classic villain, a damsel in distress, a swashbuckling hero, and a thug — playing out the requisite love scene, chases, a hostage scenario, and suspense all in just over half an hour.
The humor is broad with lots of physical gags, some Monty Python-esque silliness, and even a sort of “Who’s on First” misunderstanding sequence that gets played to the hilt by the actors. Jessie Seward, as John, delivers a John Cleese-inspired performance as a bumbling, cowardly, would-be hero. Katie Feeks proves herself an equally talented comedian and she sets up the show wonderfully with an opening sequence where she goes through the domestic motions in the exaggerated style of a silent film.
Rykerr Maynard plays the hero as a Western gunslinger with suitable swagger. Jane Loutzenhiser makes an appropriately treacly innocent maiden. Maurice “Buck” Reidy plays the villain’s henchman with a Cockney accent to perfection. Phil Kane, a newcomer to Vineyard stages, has his work cut out for him as the dastardly father-in-law, and he acquits himself very well. The performances are all first-rate, despite the physical demands of the show.
“I love them: they’re all great,” Ms. McCarthy says of her handpicked cast. “They’re hard-working and sort of wide-eyed and willing. I really appreciate that they’ve allowed me to micromanage them.”
It is a challenging play to stage since there is a lot of physical comedy that needs to be precisely timed. Luckily, Ms. McCarthy is a pro at both comedy and choreography. The seasoned actor/director/musician has appeared on stage with both The Vineyard Playhouse and Island Theatre Workshop (ITW). She has directed and choreographed approximately 50 musicals for the Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury schools, and she has written and starred in two one-woman multiple character shows for the ITW.
Ms. McCarthy has recently been singing at the Lambert’s Cove Inn in West Tisbury. She and guitarist Bob Johnson will perform jazz and blues standards there on Mother’s Day this Sunday.
This past winter, Ms. McCarthy decided she wanted to give Vineyard actors — as well as Vineyard audiences — something to do during the downtime. With the exception of Mr. Kane, she has worked with all of the actors in previous shows. “The original plan was just to get together and see how we worked,” she says. “I wasn’t even sure what we were going to do.”
She selected “The Man in The Bowler Hat” since she had acted in it in high school and has wanted to do it again for many years.
“I thought it would be fun to get together and do something quick — a one act,” she says. “I think it’s really funny. I like the humor of it.” Because of all of the physical comedy and chase scenes, it ended up being a much more challenging undertaking than she anticipated. The group has been rehearsing three times weekly for almost two months. The commitment has paid off. The actors’ timing is perfect.
Ms. McCarthy has expanded upon the production by adding music — some typical movie score, scene-setting pieces. She also added the pantomime at the beginning and a clever recap sequence at the end.
“It’s rather enhanced,” she says. “I saw that I could do something different with it. I could see some more happening with it.” The show has Ms. McCarthy’s quirky sense of humor stamped on it.
To fill out the program, she has added a selection of poems from Milne’s two classic books of poetry, “When We Were Very Young” and “Now We are Six.”
“These are my childhood favorite poems,” says Ms. McCarthy, “They’re just these beautiful written monologues.”
The six actors deliver the witty poems — individually or as duets — in character as children. The effect is charming and well-executed.
The show gives a nice well-rounded view of Milne. Along with his well-known works for children, the amazingly prolific author wrote seven novels, four works of nonfiction, multiple magazine articles, and an impressive 30 plays for adults. Judging by “The Man in the Bowler Hat,” Milne was as adept at entertaining grown-ups as he was at captivating children.
“The Man in the Bowler Hat,” 7:30 pm, Thursday–Saturday & 4 pm matinée on Saturday, Grange Hall, West Tisbury. $12; $8 seniors/students. Presented by Island Theatre Workshop. 508-737-8550; itwmv.org.