By Philip Pearce
PACIFIC REP’s The Lusty Adventures of Tom Jones is that racy kind of comedy that is sometimes described as “a romp.” Whatever you care to call it, this energetic production romps around the stage of the Outdoor Forest Theater with exuberant charm and boundless athletic energy.
Kenneth Kelleher directs and he sets the dizzying tone right from the start. Patrons who have brought a pre-performance picnic dinner eat it in front of a tasteful array of period furniture and props carefully arranged around Patrick McEvoy‘s symmetrical two-level set. When the stage lights come up, the cast enter and approach the footlights, calmly enough until they discover that there’s an audience out there. A mass panic attack erupts. Periwigged gents and powdery-haired ladies scurry and stumble around, bumping into each other as they hurriedly rearrange set units into a whole new configuration. They’re not just being awkward for awkward’s sake. They are telling us this is going to be a story about order versus chaos. A polite 18th century world of correct manners, rigid class distinctions, stately minuets and ornate interiors is going to explode into disordered sexual encounters, loud and ludicrous sword fights and a lot of slapstick comedy complications.
Like a lot of plots, this one’s about sex and money. Tom Jones can neither marry well nor inherit big because he’s a foundling of such doubtful parentage that, in this production at any rate, his infant body gets thrown from hand to hand like a football after being left on the doorstep of kind but conventional country Squire Allworthy and his spinster sister. Once gown to handsome manhood, Tom becomes a peasant toy boy to everything in skirts, from farm wenches to titled ladies who are bored with their titled husbands. He may hob nob and canoodle with the gentry, but when it comes to marriage he can only hope to claim a bride from the scullery or the stable yard. No chance of winning the hand of Sophie, the lovely daughter of Allworthy’s neighbor Squire Weston.
Will Springhorn Jr. plays Tom with just the right mix of pop-eyed lasciviousness and galumphing innocence. He responds to his many erotic opportunities as though he doesn’t quite know what he’s doing but once he’s done it he’s surprised that he’s done it so well. There’s the toothsome farm girl Molly (a gutsy and all too willing Jill Miller), and there are two classy matrons named Mrs. Fitzpatrick and Lady Bellaston, (all high energy and active libidos in the hands of Kristen Brownstone and, once again, Jill Miller}. Wedged socially between this upscale pair and the lowborn home girl is the deliciously provocative Julie Hughett as a demimonde matron in distress named Mrs. Waters. Tom rescues her from supposed danger on the open road and beds her with ease at a wayside hostelry. Nothing could quite match the lip-smacking suggestiveness of the same scene in Tony Richardson’s classic 1964 film, but their intimate bedroom banquet supplies an appropriately raunchy climax to Act 2 of Jon Jory‘s sprightly stage adaptation. Meanwhile Tom’s beloved Sophie Weston (the spirited and beautiful Elyse Sharp) is on the loose, angry that her father (a West Country diamond in the ruff James Brady) forbids a match with Tom but then tearful when an unexpected stopover at that same village inn brings her face to face with Tom’s serial womanizing.
The extended sequence at the rural hostelry brings most of the cast together in a classical circus of farce situations, including mistaken identity bed partners and a lumbering sword battle with an enraged Irishman named Fitzpatrick (a proud and posturing Jonathan Rhys Williams) and his Scottish buddy MacLachlaan (the always hilarious D. Scott McQuiston.) Overseeing and enabling all the chicanery as long as you cross her palm with silver is a busy, bribable landlady played with comic brilliance by Jessica Powell, who doubles as Squire Allworthy’s purportedly virginal sister.
If all of this suggests a parade of lurid and salacious sex scenes, think again. Jory’s adaptation gives Henry Fielding’s story a johnny-on-the-spot Narrator and Kelleher has had the wisdom to assign the role to the brilliant and versatile Howard Burnham. A high comic answer to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town stage manager, our Narrator keeps interrupting the story to clarify thorny plot points and protect our sensibilities by ringing a schoolyard warning bell when things are getting too heated on the hayrick or in the bed chamber And as if that weren’t enough of an assignment, Burnham also takes on seven other roles, including a smarmy curate, a dour Scottish doctor, a squeaky-voiced serving maid and a sepulchral hangman.
The hangman’s needed because, by the time Act 2 moves toward a close, Tom has not only been banished from the Allworthy homestead and lost hope of winning Sophie because of too many rolls in the hay with a pregnant Molly but he’s also about to be hanged for murder.
Throughout, Kelleher and his wonderful cast keep up the battle between order and chaos. The wide reaches of the Outdoor Forest Theater may occasionally make it hard to catch every snatch of precise exposition, especially when characters direct it up stage. But that hardly matters. This production’s not about spoken information, it’s about breakneck bodily action. When Tom mounts the stairs for a scene on the second story, he repeatedly falls backward into what sounds like a surrounding moat, but nobody seems to notice. There are kicks in the pants and elsewhere, there are fart jokes, and a fair number of period male trousers get dropped, in one case when Jeffrey T. Heyer’s stylish and respectable Squire Allworthy misunderstands what it is one of the titled ladies has just asked him to do for her.
My lips are sealed as to how it all ends, but, trust me, it’s a delectable romp and it continues weekends through October 14th.