Thursday, May 18, 2017

"SMUT: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson)


SMUT: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson)
Alan Bennett


Phil Wong, Søren Oliver, Andre Amarotico, Rosie Hallet, Robert Parsons & Nancy Selby (on floor)
Mrs. Donaldson, a recent widow left alone in her senior years, clearly is not stricken as much in grief as she is a bit worried about the financial situation that her deceased husband left her.  (After all, her long years of marriage were actually “happy to begin with, then satisfactory, finally dull.”)  How the prim and proper English lady decides to supplement her income leads her at one point to wonder about herself, “What kind of person was she? She was not no longer sure.”

Her choices for increased finances become fodder for Z Space Word for Word’s rendition of Alan Bennett’s SMUT: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson – a production that is absolutely delightful, altogether funny, and totally charming with some risqué mixed in for good measure.  Told with all the original wording of Mr. Bennett’s novella-size story, characters speak their parts in the third person to describe what they (and others) are saying, thinking, and doing.  SMUT: An Unseemly Story is Word for Word at the company’s finest – especially when directed with the astute, clever, heart-warming touches orchestrated by Amy Kossow.

Much to her buttoned-up, tightly scarfed daughter’s horror, Mrs. Donaldson has decided to perform as a patient for a local medical school’s doctors-in-training, taking on with increasing boldness, vigor, and sassy drama such roles as duodenal ulcer, Crohn’s disease, and the sudden faints.  The often bumbling and nervous students are under the watchful, often critical eye of Dr. Ballantyne, as is Mrs. Donaldson; but there is no criticism coming from the widower professor toward her – only a growing infatuation. 

Rosie Hallett, Nancy Selby & Andre Amarotico
Two of the students become boarders in Mrs. Donaldson’s house; but the rent soon becomes a big issue, for them and for her.  Laura and Andy come to Mrs. Donaldson with flowers, a cup of tea, and a proposal for how to pay her back – “a demonstration in lieu,” such demonstration involving what any two, hot-bloodied, lovers might do when their mostly naked bodies come together in bed.  Mrs. Donaldson’s decision leaves her in “a refuge a haven utterly set apart, a place all her own,” and it leaves us in stitches and in wonder of what is going to happen next for this endearing woman who is fast capturing her audience’s hearts.

With high, bubbled cheeks that accentuate a smile that rarely leaves her a-lit face, Nancy Shelby is nothing short of fabulous in the role of Mrs. Jane Donaldson.  The epitome of dignity, graciousness, and English charm in her no-wrinkles-allowed dress and simple shawl, her Mrs. Donaldson has also another side of her that surprises even herself.  It is almost as if she and we get to watch her emerge from years of married hibernation as she takes on new roles – both at work and at home – that awaken parts of her long forgotten.  As she notes, there emanates within her “a slow, deep pumping of the heart she had not heard since she was a girl.”  It would be tough to imagine how anyone could better embody this liberalizing evolution better than does Ms. Shelby.

All around her is a wonderfully talented cast of quirky souls, some of who play more than one part and all of who bring particular peculiarities well-honed and guaranteed to elicit laughter.  Opposite in almost every regard to her mother is Mrs. Donaldson’s judgmental, uptight daughter, Gwen, played deliciously by Delia MacDougall with an obnoxiously grating voice of low-English dialect as she continually notes, “I don’t know that Daddy would think.”  Even funnier is Ms. MacDougall becoming Mrs. Donaldson’s bosom friend and fellow medical-school performer, Delia.  Together they put on an act of two sisters with a brain-dead mother that flusters the hell out of the students and tickles to no end the audience.  (Delia is the sister who is clearly from ‘southern’ England, complete with drawl and a name of Jackie, with a sustained, high-pitched emphasis on the ‘kie’.)

The student who constantly also produces many giggles is Phil Wong as Roswell, a bug-eyed, in big glasses, wanna-be physician who blubbers and bumbles in his attempts to deal with the characters Mrs. Donaldson creates with aplomb.  Highly emotional, awkward, and insecure, Roswell eventually wins her, ours, and even Dr. Ballantyne’s admiration in a performance certainly worthy of “Best Featured Actor” consideration for Mr. Wong.

Søren Oliver
But wait, vying for that honor is certainly also Søren Oliver as Dr. Ballantyne himself.  Trying his best to appear strict and straight-and-narrow to his students in his portly body’s smart-looking suit and tie, Dr. Ballantyne lets us see his other self as he opens his heart and his hidden desires behind the closed doors of his office to a sympathetic skeleton.  Gawky like a teenager struggling with his first love but with the sophisticated language of a highly educated adult, Mr. Oliver’s doctor/professor is a great mixture of boy/man as the older’s heart and libido is re-ignited by his new flame, Mrs. Donaldson.






Robert Parson (in drag) with Phil Wong & Cast
Not to be over-shadowed amongst this strong cast, Patricia Silver is hilarious playing the eldest among the medical school’s performing lot, Mrs. Beckinsale, who boasts of her repertoire of brain-related, trauma and disease roles.  Robert Parsons is clearly having a great time running around --sometimes almost disrobed, sometimes in full drag -- as medical role-player Terry Porter.  Mr. Parsons also (much to Mrs. Donaldson’s annoyance) occasionally pops up as her dead husband, Cyril, with his disapproving frowns, only out-matched by his overly daddy-adoring and equally prudish daughter (the aforementioned Gwen).


Andre Amarotico, Rosie Hallet & Nancy Selby
Rounding out the ensemble, Rosie Hallett and Andre Amarotico are Laura and Andy respectively, Mrs. Donaldson’s student housemates, whose stop-action love-making – complete with their and Mrs. Donaldson’s ongoing commentary in Word for Word style – is a show-stopping combination of sexy and silly.  Ms. Hallett is particularly fun in the ways she exaggerates her movements of mouth, eyes as well as hands/fingers as she plays the intense Laura.

Andre Amarotico & Rosie Hallett
A great, tongue-in-cheek touch by both playwright Alan Bennett and director Any Kossow is the periodic insertion of a karaoke number by each of the characters (except the title lady herself), songs sung with flair and flimsy to accentuate some emotion or event at that point in the play.  The numbers often give the other actors a chance to ham up their roles even more as they watch and listen (like Roswell’s silently but completely losing it to Laura’s and Andy’s overly dramatic version of Elton John’s “Your Song”).

Jeff Rowlings has created a set (along with accompanying lighting) with tiered, arena seating like one might find in a medical classroom, complete with a drawer that opens out of the stairs to become a bedroom.  Fronting on two corners are simple but effective scenes of Mrs. Donaldson’s home and Dr. Ballantyne’s office.  Costumes by Callie Floor produce their own laughs as well as perfect the individual characterizations created by each actor.  Drew Yerys’ sound design lets us hear Mrs. Donaldson’s heart while also rocking in fun to the echo-chamber sounds of a karaoke bar.

One strange, somewhat distracting choice in the production is to have, at least the night I attended, one, lone audience member sit in the tiered seats of the medical classroom.  She seemed out of place both by her solitary presence and sometimes pulled my attention away from the play in order to watch her craning body as she attempted to see what was happening below her.  Maybe if there had been several such audience members, the device might have worked; but I cannot see what would have been added to the already tight, fast-moving ninety minutes where the small stage is full enough with the cast of eight.

So much of the overall fun of SMUT: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson) comes from the way it is told in the Word for Word fashion that I cannot imagine the story being staged any other way.  When this superb cast – especially as splendidly headlined by Nancy Selby as the title character – and the fine touches of its director are added, Word for Word’s SMUT: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson) is a gem not to be missed at Z Below.

Rating: 5 E

SMUT: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson) continues through June 11, 2017 at Z Below, 470 Florida Street San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at www.zspace.org.

Photo Credits: Mel Solomon

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