Flying Farce

Stewardesses and schemes are now boarding at Arizona Repertory Theatre

The term "jet set" had been hatched, overused and had passed into meaninglessness before the young people featured in the University of Arizona's theater program's Boeing Boeing had even been born.

But the young thespians gamely embrace inhabiting a time in which playboys guiltlessly carry on with a revolving door of beautiful "airline hostesses," aka stewardesses, trying to make sure that one doesn't overlap with another as they land in passionate Paris.

Arizona Repertory Theatre has opened its season with a very funny production of Marc Camoletti's hopelessly silly play.  The good news is that in spite of its groan-producing and headshake-inducing corniness, the UA students pull off a spirited romp in which they demonstrate the high caliber of the department's trainees and those who instruct them.

The 1960s saw the emergence of several social trends and advances in technology that paved the way to a world far different from that of the post-World War II era.  The advent of the birth control pill and the relaxing of social mores regarding sex were central to the evolution of this new era, and the introduction of the superbig, superfast Boeing 707 made the world more accessible with its jet-propelled speed.  The election of young John F. Kennedy seemed to herald the changing times, which ultimately developed into a sexual revolution and created a culture of youth. 

Camoletti's play is born from the gene pool of pure farce, which is more about choreographed commotion than character development.  And it absolutely must be set in the '60s—to try to update it would be disastrous.  But the play is very well put together by farce standards, and although it is in many ways sort of a relic, it still works.   Its subject may be laughable; we may cringe at some of the things that come out of the characters' mouths; and maybe some of us have a bit too much knowledge of those times to watch without wincing.   But if you can put all that aside and look at it as a period piece, it can be very funny.

Bernard (Parker Janecek) is an American businessman who lives in a sprawling bachelor pad in Paris.  He is a "swinger," as they were called in the day, engaged to three different women, each a stewardess with a different airline.  Gloria (Silvia Vannoy) flies for TWA (she's the one in red); Gabriella (Carli Naff) for Alitalia (sporting navy blue); and Gretchen (Sammie Lideen) for Lufthansa (bright green.)  They create a veritable rainbow of beautiful babes, none of whom is aware of the others because Bernard keeps careful watch over the airlines' flight schedules, making sure that his liaisons are timed so that his stable of stewardesses avoid one another.  Watching over these shenanigans is Berte (Lindsey Mony), a vaguely philosophical maid, who aids and abets Bernard's busy sex schedule, but not without complaint.

Into this risky routine comes Bernard's ol' school chum Robert (Michael Calvoni), a nerdy rube from Wisconsin who is as green as Gretchen's flight bag.  Impressed with Bernard's situation, although unable to comprehend how such a thing could even be possible, Robert quickly becomes a player in a dangerously degenerating setup when a new jet (the Boeing 707) shortens flight times, putting Bernard's beauties on a collision course.

As with all farce, there are plenty of doors to open and close at just the right moments, and abundant machinations attempting to dispel possibilities that paths are wrongly crossed.  We know what's going to happen eventually, and we willingly suspend our disbelief that all these crossing patterns and door slams and way-too-obvious attempts to pull the wool over the babe-trio's eyes are at all effective.  But it's pretty damn funny to watch Robert, in particular, scheme to cover up, redirect and, in ways creative and pitiful, attempt to manage the doomed situation.

Director Brent Gibbs has assembled a well-matched cast and gives his young charges a farce-intensive workout.  This is actually a good show for student actors because it demands developing and exercising physical comedy, and because accents are involved for all the women.  Both of these elements are executed well, except for a few times when the physical maneuvering seems awkward and the accents muddy what's being said.

It's also a workout for the student scenic and costume designers, and here there was not as much success.  The set, designed by Taryn Wintersteen, although quite good-looking and workable with all the requisite doors, doesn't really have that distinct "mod" flavor of the '60s.  The costumes, designed by Sandahl Masson, didn't seem very '60s-ish either, except for the uniforms of the stewardesses.  The program tells us the play is set in 1960, so perhaps that style was too early in its development to be historically accurate.  (Or, perhaps Paris was immune from such tormented design and fashion choices.) But for today's audiences, it would be more clearly evocative—and fun—if those distinctive design elements were present.

The women do some fine work, and Lideen's Gretchen is quite fun to watch as her Valkyrie-like qualities assert themselves, and as she and mild-mannered Robert discover that they may actually be made for each other.  And Mony's Berte was a great audience pleaser.    

Robert is the central figure around which the comedy unfolds, and Calvoni gives a winning performance.  It's hilarious to watch him work through layer after layer of innocence and naiveté as he is compelled to participate ever more frenetically in this spinning-out-of-control state of affairs.  He is so credibly sweet and out of his depth, but willing and eager to try to handle the situation for his friend, that he is not only really, really funny, but he wins our sympathies and gives us someone to root for in this sordid mess. 

Although the play is über-silly, you can't help but enjoy the efforts of those who make it happen.  And in a quirk rarely seen in these parts, you can see another production of the show in several months at Live Theatre Workshop.  I guess silly sells.

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