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MADCAP PACE AND FLAWLESS TIMING

Print Version

The Miser of Mystery Creek
based on Moliere’s The Miser
devised by the cast
guided and directed by Stuart Devenie
Fullhouse Productions

at The Medici Court, Hamilton Gardens, Hamilton
From 18 Feb 2011 to 1 Mar 2011
[Only 4 shows]

Reviewed by Gail Pittaway, 21 Feb 2011
originally published in The Waikato Times (this is an expanded review)

Moliere's The Miser has been colonised by this hysterical historical farce set in the swamps around Hamilton in 1867. Moliere's play, L'Avare, literally ‘the avaricious one', was written for the court of Louis XIV in France in the 1660s; this version was devised by Stuart Devenie and members of the cast for the Medici Court Garden theatre, especially for the Hamilton Gardens Festival in 2011.

Taking the themes of greed, love and coincidence from the French original, and transferring some of the names (the Miser, Harpagon, is now called Hansen and is a Scot) and doing away with a few minor characters, this reading has found new layers of comedy, rich and previously un-mined, in the settlement of the Waikato region: the grab for land, the great river which severs parts of the new town, the steamboat and shipping in and out of the county and colony, the swamps and above all, the range of newcomers with a wealth of accents and turns of phrase from all levels of society. There's a generous sprinkling of geographic regionalism from the British Isles; Scots, Irish, Geordie, Scouse, Cockney, and voices educated and not. 

In an hilarious twitch and tug at local history, a place name explanation is given. Hansen is a wealthy but tight land owner of several acres called Hansen's Creek. He's so in love with his money box he calls it his precious and his love. When mysterious events linked to the money box occur with mystery persons, Hansen's land at Hansen's Creek changes its name to Mystery Creek, now the actual name for a local venue for huge events such as Field Days and large scale concerts – a modern gold mine!

Too mean too properly clothe his grown-up children, Hansen only allows them to live rent free with him provided they work. His son, Charlie, digs away for gum in the swamp and whether that is historically accurate or not, it suits the plot as it gives him opportunities to encounter the sweet Miss O'Sullivan, a penniless seamstress and the love of his life.

The daughter, Lizzie, keeps house and lives for the few moments she can snatch with her father's (unpaid) accountant, Walter Biscuit. Around the same time that he is arranging for Lizzie to marry a wealthy local Doctor, Hansen intercepts a letter to Miss O'Sullivan, advising that she is an heiress. He sends her a letter proposing marriage to him, thereby dashing the plans for love and happiness for both his offspring in one day's business. 

Devenie and cast brilliantly work the farce around the permanent pool set in the dusty stage in the small outdoor auditorium that is the Medici Court, just through the passageway from the sumptuous Italian Garden. Designed as if for a Shakespearean balcony love scene, with a flat concrete façade and upper gallery, one central door and two garden side wings, it is one of the most confined and elegant of the many venues used in this annual arts festival.

Using the site and a serviceable collection of Victorian costume rather than props and furniture, we are in turns in swamps, parlours, living rooms, kitchens, laundries and gardens. There's even a church scene. We get one balcony love scene and one gallery bath scene, and many chases in and out of the gardens, round and around the pool. People hide behind lemon trees, rather than in cupboards, but in all the stuff of farce is richly provided as antics and obsession drive the plot to confusion.

Devenie directs the production with a madcap pace and flawless timing, then delivers the role of Dr Trevellyan (incidentally the name of a local retirement village and hospital) as ripe with ambiguity and opportunism; perfect for a threatening love rival.

In the gargantuan role of Hansen Andrew Kaye is energetic, even impish at times, but forceful. He swings between madness and obsession, alternately bullying and wheedling. He provides a huge part of the comedy with his twinkling illogical asides, especially when he appears in his patchwork kilt.

Michael Switzer and Henry Ashby as the rude mechanicals Percy and James provide many moments of slapstick and the church scene with Ashby as the drunken Irish priest who surely purchased his Bible from Black Books, and Switzer using the font to sneak a wash (as the miser is so mean with water) is a riot.

Kimmy Muncaster's wily voluptuary, Emily Trubshaw, provides saucy distractions for cast and audience while Charlotte Isaac's deadpan, long suffering Lizzie seems too good for any man, let alone the rather goofy and earnest Biscuit. But Scot Hall has many reserves of timing and talent and he releases the development of this character perfectly. 

James Cain and Jenna Hudson are well matched as Mary O'Sullivan and Charlie Hansen in youth and charms. With his versatile range of voice (an unexpectedly high singing voice) and expressive eyes, Cain in particular enhances this stock character for comedy.

The cast seems to have had great fun devising not just this historic parallel to the French original, but also retaining Moliere's invention of ways to be miserly. The drink at a celebration is so watered down it is water; workers are charged for the merest misdemeanour rather than paid.

Devising, itself, is a process demanding reserves of time, energy and imagination, and the final product here is not only hugely entertaining and fun but also a tribute to the tradition of Moliere's comedy of manners and a convincing adaptation of the original.

The company formerly known as HPAT delivered The Imaginary Invalid to the Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival a couple of years ago with great success and it's fitting that the newly formed company Fullhouse Theatre is launched with another comedy from Moliere who knew the dangers and delights of theatre life and above all the importance of patronage.

Several significant local and national bodies have invested in this company and with this professional quality of production we are in for a great season from them now and in the future. So good on you, investors and keep it up; we need a professional company in the fourth largest city in New Zealand, especially with talent like this!
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