Few subjects lend themselves to universal mirth the way marriage does. The theatre canon would be slim indeed if we were to remove comedies about the attempts to woo and win a life partner. One of the classic comedies in this vein is “Marriage,” penned in 1842 by Russian playwright Nikolai Gogol. A new production opened last night at the Hilberry Theatre to an enthusiastic audience.
It’s one of Gogol’s most frequently performed plays, but it’s not exactly trending in the hashtag world of social media. So you might think it’s an odd choice for the fifth production in the Hilberry Theatre’s 50th season. And it would be, if we didn’t know that the Hilberry company has a wonderful habit of making each production its own.
This classic Russian tale of arranged marriages has as its hero a youngish bachelor who gets cold feet whenever confronted with the chilly reality of marriage. He has been proposed by the official matchmaker as a suitor for an eligible young lady in town. The bachelor’s best friend, who has an ax to grind with the matchmaker, decides to usurp her duties and arrange the marriage himself. Of course, there are three other suitors who have their own ideas about how things should be arranged. And the would-be bride is terrified of the whole situation.
The translated dialog is clever, but most of Gogol’s laughs are visual and situational. And that’s where director James Thomas takes everything to the next level … and deliberately over the top. It's brilliant.
It starts with an outrageous set design by Michael Wilkki that features a giant pink wedding cake through which the actors make their entrances and exits. The suitors’ costumes, by Clare Hungate-Hawk, are also larger than life, with shocking colors, giant buttons and hats that are a few inches taller and wider than you’d expect to find in 1840’s Russia. The inventive use of props, including graphic signs that pop up like thought bubbles behind the actors, add to the levity.
And then there’s the music. We’re pretty sure that Gogol didn’t open his show with a choreographed lip-sync to Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover.” But he missed a bet. This was a fun, funny way to kick off the show, signaling to the audience that this is a thoroughly contemporary production and that the laughs will keep on coming. So do the musical numbers – not frequently, but enough to give this show a distinctive, upbeat pacing.
Of course, none of this would work without an ensemble cast that understands the fundamental ridiculousness of Gogol’s characters and their situations. They are wonderfully funny in the best way possible – which is to say, they play silly characters who take themselves very seriously.
Brent Griffith, as the hesitant bachelor, has a few hilarious scenes that work largely because we can see, in his facial expressions and body language, the quickly changing notions running through his head. He swings from confidant swagger to horrified terror in the span of a few swift heart beats. Ty Mitchell, as his manic best friend, brings crazy energy and a certain grace to the role that seems appropriate in one who is essentially a con man. Annie Keris, as the bride-to-be, is lovely and dainty and catches everyone off guard when she occasionally drops her perky ingénue babble to deadpan the key lines that express what she’s really thinking.
The matchmaker is played by Sarah Hawkins Moan, who serves up the suitors as if they are choice cuts of cured beef. The bride’s overbearing Aunt Arina is played with all the sincerity of a bludgeon by Joshua Blake Rippy. He earned laughs with every flounce of his lovely, man-sized gown, and clearly enjoyed intimidating the suitors. The suitors – played by Chris Call, Miles Boucher and Topher Payne – each have fun moments in the spotlight that underscore the unrealistic expectations the men have regarding marriage.
Even the servants have fun in this play. Alec Barbour, as the valet, responds to his master’s elaborate requests with clipped, belligerent answers. And Chelsea Ortuno, as the maid, brings a trippy otherness to a role that adds a charming silliness to all of her scenes.
Director James Thomas is supported in this production by: Michelle Brock (Choreographer), Dana Gamarra (Stage Manager), Michael Wilkki (Scenic Designer), Leah McCall (Lighting Designer), Clare Hungate-Hawk (Costume Designer), Heather DeFauw (Sound Designer), Leazah Behrens (Property Master), Maz Amitin (Technical Director), Curtis Green (Asst. Technical Director), Kimbra Essex (Paint Charge), Kevin Replinger (Publicity Manager), and Max Bolton (Publicity Design).
There’s much to enjoy in this unique production of “Marriage,” which runs in rotating repertory through Saturday, April 6, with the dark comedy “Detroit” by Lisa D’Amour and the comedic Shakespearean reimagining “Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)” by Ann-Marie MacDonald. Check the website for dates. Tickets for “Marriage” range from $12–$30 and are available by calling the Hilberry Theatre Box Office at (313) 577-2972, online, or by visiting the box office at 4743 Cass Avenue on the corner of Hancock.