April 25, 2002

A Perfect Match

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This weekend, the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts will cap off its 2001-2002 season with Thornton Wilder’s energetic farce, The Matchmaker. David Feldshuh is at the helm as director, with Benjamin Shiffrin ’03 assistant directing. The play first hit Broadway in 1954, and was the inspiration behind the 1964 musical Hello, Dolly! The play is a celebration of American nationalism, and a hilarious one at that.

The four-act farce takes place at the turn of the 20th century in New York City. Widower Horace Vandergelder (RPTA Brian Russell) employs the help of Dolly Levi (RPTA Tracey Huffman) to find a new wife. Meanwhile, Horace’s two employees, Cornelius (RPTA Joe Hickey) and Barnaby (Greg Roman ’05) embark on their own quest to find adventure. The play is a twist on traditional Commedia dell’ Arte story lines. The overbearing father opposes the young lovers. Through a series of chases, chance encounters, and other sources of adventure, the youngsters ultimately prevail. Feldshuh refers to the plot as a more classic version of Meet the Parents.

Farce is a type of comedy that is especially challenging. It needs specificity, clarity, exaggeration, credibility, and effortlessness. The stakes are raised here because of the size of the Kiplinger Theatre. Feldshuh notes, “It is easy to be real when you’re small, but it is challenging when the actor has to fill an enlarged contour. A character has to do extraordinary things with dexterity. They have to be nimble and stay ahead of the audience. It’s a wonderful challenge. It is a classic, and it demands as much skill as Shakespeare, but in a different way.”

When asked why he was drawn to this show, Feldshuh commented it was particularly sentimental for him because his mentor, Tyrome Guthrie, originally brought the play to Broadway in 1954. He also liked Matchmaker because it is a unique type of farce — one with heart. Most farcical comedy is contingent on cruelty, or putting characters in dangerous situations (again, think Meet the Parents or Noises Off). The comedy in The Matchmaker is four-fold: comedy based on character, on situation, on physical gags and verbal wit.

The show has also thrown vaudeville into the mix. Because of the huge scale of the four-act comedy, there are lengthy set changes needed between each act. Feldshuh is employing the old “crossover” technique from the turn of the century to deal with this. In classic vaudeville routines, the curtain would come down during a set change, and another scene would take place in front of the curtain while stagehands moved the furniture behind the curtain. However, Wilder has no such dialogue between the acts.

To get around this, Feldshuh has incorporated several vaudeville comedy routines to be performed during these crossover times in front of the curtain. Graduate student Patrick Reynolds helped find pieces that were of the time and appropriate for this material. In addition to the vaudeville routines, there are eleven songs of the period. The production staff was conscious to pick pieces that reflected the American spirit, the ability to move beyond trouble, to survive, and to celebrate.

Matchmaker is very much a period piece. This is enhanced by the ornate sets by Resident Scenic Designer, Kent Goetz, and the lavish costumes by Resident Costume Designer, Sarah Bernstein. Feldshuh comments, “The play is a terrific opportunity to explore the American spirit. It is based on a time when America was a very different place, with innocence and optimism.” He has altered the play so that many characters speak with various European accents, to highlight the multi-cultured society of 1900’s New York City.

“At the time, one third of the United States was immigrants. I felt that Matchmaker was not just about romantic matching, but matching people of various countries to America.” This is a particularly poignant idea in a post-September 11th world. “I came up with the culture matching idea before September 11th, and revisited it afterwards. I’m a great believer in the therapeutic use of laughter. This is a great time for laughter.”

Other cast members include Jessica Heley ’02 as Mrs. Molloy, RPTA John Payne as Malachi Stack, Lauren Wells ’04 as Ermengarde, and Kristen Frazier ’05 as Minnie Fay. When asked about the cast, Feldshuh reacted, “The students and RPTA’s have worked unbelievably well to get the meticulous detail this play requires. It’s been a lot of hard work and a great joy to put together. I hope the audience will find both a sense of recognition in the characters, and a sense of fun.”

Archived article by Daniel Fischer