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Review: Buffalo Gal

Williamstown Little Theatre

Buffalo Gal by A. R. Gurney

Directed by George Werther

Performance - Friday 11 September 2015 (Opening week)

Reviewer – Jennifer Paragreen

A new play by A. R. Gurney seemed an interesting prospect given his reputation with such works as Love Letters, The Dining Room and Sylvia. An Australian première of this new play means that everything is fresh and audiences go along without preconceived ideas about what they are about to experience. And so it was when I went along to see Buffalo Gal staged by Williamstown Little Theatre.

To my surprise, and to that of several other patrons, we were greeted in the courtyard by a huge poster, complete with cast photos, advertising a coming production of The Cherry Orchard. We quickly realised that that this production was in fact being presented by Buffalo Little Theater but then followed much discussion about the casting. I was perplexed that I had not remembered Robbie Carmellotti being on the cast list and quite bewildered as to how the wonderful Ian Grealy could be involved. There was a flurry of activity to match actors’ names with Chekhovian characters – we succeeded for two!

Curiosity already piqued, we entered the auditorium to find the cherry tree backdrop dominating the stage and crew members busily preparing for a show, sweeping, setting lights etc and making us feel as though we were really in a theatre where The Cherry Orchard was about to be performed. Then the play began with the jaunty tones of the 19th Century minstrel song, Buffalo Gals.

The stage setting was in fact the not quite complete set for a contemporary production of The Cherry Orchard to be staged in Buffalo, upstate New York. The scenario was that a celebrated television and movie star, who had grown up in Buffalo, returning to her hometown to play Ranevskaya, the lead role in the production.

There are obvious parallels between The Cherry Orchard and the background story used for Buffalo Gal. Chekov’s play features an aristocratic woman returning from a life of indulgence no longer tenable for her in Paris to her debt ridden family estate just as it is about to be auctioned. Gurney has his star arriving back from Los Angeles to find her grandmother’s old home up for sale and her prospects for a successful outcome on the stage clearly as impractical and delusional as Ranevskaya’s.

As the homecoming queen, Amanda Richardson, Venetia Macken turned in a literally stellar performance with every gesture channeled to theatrical, even melodramatic, effect. Her beauty, impeccable grooming, deportment and languid voice were a combination that gave credibility to her being a movie and television star yet there are hints of the fragility which will threaten this project.

Chris Perkins impressed as the talented and ambitious director, desperately hoping that Amanda’s star power would bring audiences to the theatre and the possibility of the production’s transfer closer to Broadway. Her character’s commitment to the theatre company and a resigned determination to cater to Amanda’s whims and ego as a means of achieving a goal were well displayed.

Gavin Williams brought a calm confidence to the role of Roy, the reliable stage manager who loves the theatre because of all the talking while Karolina Surawski exuded youthful enthusiasm as the ASM straight out of drama school and eager to show her knowledge of Greek theatre.

Wem Etuknwa was dignified as James Johnson, an African-American actor new to The Cherry Orchard cast, who just happened to be an old drama school friend of Amanda’s, and Ken McLeish made a good fist of a rather unlikely role of Dan, a discontented dentist who had written a musical in his youth and still carries a torch for Amanda.

Chekhov envisaged The Cherry Orchard as a comedy although there are tragic undertones. The same could be said for Gurney’s Buffalo Gal script. George Werther’s sensitive direction ensured that the comedy was paramount but the poignancy of fading youth, self delusion, unrequited love and missed opportunities was also evident.

The structure of the play exposes the workings of a theatre company and the commitment, talent and effort needed to put on a play. The on stage characters provide an insight into the responsibilities and problems faced by the director, stage manager and his ASM but WLT’s staging of Buffalo Gal was indeed a case of ‘Art imitating Life imitating Art’.

The set design by Laurice Banwell incorporated the incomplete set for The Cherry Orchard with beautifully painted rows of cherry trees on a huge backdrop and French windows. We also had evidence of work yet to be done with a ladder and paint pots plus a flat left over from a previous production. A rocking horse off to one side symbolized the effort need to assemble props for a production. Best of all was a complete working model of the set and all its components meticulously constructed to scale by David Dare.

The work of a lighting designer was brilliantly illustrated when there was a call to demonstrate the lights and orchard backdrop was suddenly illuminated in all its glory.

Sound design for this production included music intelligently chosen to fit the context and the mood of the play, in this case a section from a violin concerto by Chekhov’s compatriot, Tchaikovsky, and Ella Fitzgerald’s wistful interpretation of Cole Porter’s Every Time We Say Goodbye.

This play also includes a recording of a song supposedly composed by Amanda’s teenage beau, Dan, and performed by the pair of them in a musical many years previously. Janet Proven and Michael Bingham provided the vocals with Jennifer Lund as their accompanist.

Costumes are an important component of any production. There was a whole row of costumes all neatly lined up in suit bags carefully labelled ready for characters in The Cherry Orchard. Amanda’s glowing stage gown was constructed by Kirsten Willoughby. She had arrived at the theatre in a colourful outfit which demonstrated her stylish elegance with a hot pink chemise and a silky top with kimono style sleeves which draped beautifully when she gestured. Debbie’s painted tights were also rather a statement.

It was Janine Evans’ poster design work that caught my eye when I arrived at the theatre – just another of the many tasks needed to be a successful theater company.

Jennifer Paragreen

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