Fondly, Collette Richland
Elevator Repair Service presents its first original play at New York Theatre Workshop.
An unadorned kitchen in the Midwest becomes a grandiose villa in the Swiss Alps. A group of Pagans scheme to steal the soul of a little girl. A disruptive audience member gets tossed out Patti LuPone-style. These are some of the threads of the new play Fondly, Collette Richland by Sibyl Kempson at New York Theatre Workshop. Equal parts mundane kitchen-sink drama, fantastical dreamscape about vacationing in Switzerland, and ghoulish nightmare involving the Alpine goat-devil creature Krampus, this altogether perplexing work is the first brand-new piece to be presented by the esteemed Elevator Repair Service.
Over the past two decades, Elevator Repair Service, under the direction of John Collins, has crafted pieces based on found texts (like Arguendo, the staging of an oral argument from a court case involving exotic dancers). In recent years, they've gained acclaim for theatricalizing novels. Their seven-hour Gatz, an acted-out, verbatim retelling of The Great Gatsby has become one of those legendary productions you hear people speaking wistfully about. Fondly, Collette Richland adheres to many of the tenants of their past works. The sound design is zany and the 12 actors spontaneously burst out into elaborate dance numbers. But this experimental piece — experimental with a capital E — is baffling, and the creators seem to want it that way.
Fondly, Collette Richland opens with a dinner-table scene where Colonel "Fritz" Fitzhubert (Vin Knight) is dining with his wife, Mabrel (Laurena Allan). A local political representative (Greig Sargeant) comes to talk politics. However, Local Representative Wheatsun has an ulterior motive: He knows the Fitzhuberts possess a doorway to a different world in their living room, and he wants to see it. Once they journey through this portal, they're in an extravagant ski chalet populated with eccentric characters with potentially evil motives.
As the show progresses, Fondly, Collette Richland becomes increasingly obscure. The first act is actually pretty fun, all of the performances quite good, and the deliberately low-tech sets (by David Zinn) are charming in deliciously kitschy ways. Quickly, though, the realism and structure of this created world disappears. Kempson and company start heaping on the absurd and ridiculous. By the end of Act 1, it becomes impossible to tell where we're headed. All hell breaks loose in Act 2 as witches start plotting to steal souls, humans turn into mermaids and Roman soldiers, and that crazy Krampus starts eating naughty children.
At certain points, one starts to wonder whether the cast has any idea of what's going on. Despite this, the performances remain energetic and imaginative throughout (particularly Knight as both the Willy Loman-style Fritz and the significantly younger, and female, Peggy Gladys, who gets her soul stolen by witches). The jarring sense of confusion (like the sounds of the end of the world in the distance, created by Ben Williams) is obviously part of director Collins' grand plan, but one that doesn't seem to have the audience in mind.
Theater is a give and take. As integral as theatermakers are to the performance process, so too is the audience. Fondly, Collette Richland simply sinks under the weight of its own desire to please itself.