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‘Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad’ at The American Century Theater

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Oh Mum, Oh Dad, Arthur Kopit must be mad! Zaniness abounds in The American Century Theater’s (TACT) hysterical production of Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad . It took an outrageous and eccentric mind to come up with the play’s title and match it with an equally crazy story about a psychotic woman, facetiously named Madame Rosepettle, whose travelling companions include her dead husband, stuttering, immature son, a talking, cat eating fish, and carnivorous plants. To add to the unusual, this improbable, farcical parody of a mother and son’s twisted relationship was written in just five days, when Kopit was barely 23. Back in 1959, he was a restless Harvard Engineering graduate exploring theatre in search of fulfilment, completely unsuspecting that his first piece would receive the Vernon Rice Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best New Play of 1962, end up on Broadway, and be turned into a movie.

Tony Strowd (Jonathan). In back Steve Przbylski (guitar) and Vaughn Irving drums) as Musical Venus Flytraps. Photo by Johannes Markus.

Tony Strowd (Jonathan). In back Steve Przbylski (guitar) and Vaughn Irving drums) as Musical Venus Flytraps. Photo by Johannes Markus.

Few years after his success, Kopit, already an established author, was characterized as “too impatient to take anything seriously,” and “liking to shock stuffy people.” “If you saw him navigate his little black Porsche through Massachusetts Avenue  traffic, you’d conclude, there goes a man completely out of his head, wrote Gregory P. Pressman in The Harvard Crimson, adding that Kopit was, “a boy playwright, who writes like he drives, outrageously. “His plays are so unlike one another that they seem the work of several different authors,” wrote Don Shewey in his 1984 New York Times article Arthur Kopit – A life on Broadway, confirming the diversity of Kopit’s artistic output and the extent of his theatrical ‘madness.’

TACT’s Artistic Director Jack Marshall has been waiting for the right moment since 1994 to bring Oh Dad to local theatre audiences. Here he’s hit the jackpot! It’s a welcome treat for  local theatergoers who are tired of hearing bad news and who are thirsty for  some good laughs. Both the play and TACT’s outrageous production provide just a right dose of escapism 50 years after Oh Dad’s premiered in 1962 Off-Broadway at the Phoenix Repertory Theatre in New York City in 1962

The show’s design is superb! The setting of a luxurious Hotel Libre in Havana could not be more exotic, characters more surreal, the plot more bizarre, the costumes more colorful, the music more melodic. The ‘seduction’ starts in the lobby accessorized with stack of vintage suitcases, when energetic bellboys, dressed in blue hotel uniforms and caps, greet and fuss over the spectators as they enter, with loud Cuban music adding to the commotion.

Directed by Tyler Herman with assistance of Annalisa Dias, Oh Dad…transports us into the absurd and colorful world of psychotic Mme. Rosepettle and her unfortunate son with an ease and impact only attainable by professionals. Every member of the production team, including Katie Wertz (Set Design), Jason Aufdem-Brinke (Lighting Design), Thomas Sowers (Sound Design), Jacy Barber (Costume Design), and Kevin Laughon (Props Design), deserves praise for creating a world as colorful, crazy and unpredictable as the characters inhabiting it. This effect would not be achieved without the live music performed and composed by Steve Przybylski and Vaughn Irving (doubling as hilarious Venus Fly Traps). Sowers’ sound effects become a second voice of the play, present in every important moment, emphasizing moods, magnifying actions, propelling dancing and singing, and accentuating gestures and words.

The cast is perfection! Both Robin Reck (Mme. Rosepettle) and Tony Strowd (her son Jonathan) shine in their roles. Reck is Cruella de Vil incarnated; dressed to kill, barking out commands through her red lips, squinting her heavily made-up eyes in displeasure and torturing everyone with her megalomania and delusional self-importance. She was so malicious and domineering and so convincing that I wanted to jump onto the stage and strangle her repeatedly to save her poor son from further suffering. Tony Strowd also nails his performance as the limp and weak, asexual, frightened, childlike, and tortured son.

Other superb performances come from Emery Erin as a seductive babysitter Rosalie, Jonathan’s only road to freedom, Anna Lynch as Rosalinda, Mme. Rosepettle’s friendly gibbering goldfish, and Manolo Santalla, who doubles as a Bellboy and Commodore Roseabove, Mme. Rosepettle’s admirer. Santalla skillfully oscillates between expressions of admiration and love, friendly skepticism, shock and fear. Jorge A. Silva makes us laugh as the late Mr. Rosepettle and as Bellboy Consuela, and he is joined by fellow Bellboys Brian David Clarke, Andrew Quilpa, and Chema Pineda-Fernandez, whose almost non-stop presence onstage contributes to the show’s success.

The play is full of memorable moments, too many to mention them all here. The opening scene sets the expectations high, with ‘Mommy Dearest’ marching into her luxurious suite followed by bellboys carrying a black coffin. Some of the following scenes are even more startling, and took me by utter and complete surprise. Without giving it all away, I can assure you that you are going to be shocked by totally unexpected outbursts, transformations, and dastardly acts. There is never a dull moment in this off-the-wall and zany production!

When you ask an audience to pay money and sit in a theatre, you’ve got to do more than just delight them,” said Kopit in Don Shewey New York Times article Arthur Kopit – A life on Broadway. “You must feel and think also. It has to do with why theatre has always existed in civilization. Theatre matters.”.This was spoken by a more mature and serious playwright, who at the time broke with the absurdist tradition and who said about Oh Dad…, “ I could not have written that play today…there’s too much wrong with Oh Dad, too much that I wouldn’t do now that I did then.” Despite Kopit’s self-criticism, Oh Dad… remains one of his most successful creations, most likely because ‘there is so much wrong with it and its characters.’

Tony Strowd (Jonathan), Manolo Santalla and Jorge A. Silva (bellboys) and Robin Reck (Madam Rosepettle). Photo by Johannes Markus.

Tony Strowd (Jonathan), Manolo Santalla and Jorge A. Silva (Bellboys) and Robin Reck (Madam Rosepettle). Photo by Johannes Markus.

TACT’s Oh Dad not only delights, shocks, and entertains, but also offers the valuable opportunity to reflect on the darker sides of the human psyche and family dynamics. And to top it all, it transports us into the world where plants play music and fish dance. As Ira Gershwin wrote, “Who could ask for anything more?”

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, without an intermission.

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Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad plays through April 12, 2014 at The American Century Theater performing at Gunston Theatre Two – 2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, purchase them online.

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