Enter the Guardsman

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By Philip Pearce

Billed as “A Musical Fantasy,” a blissful, intimate musical play called Enter The Guardsman has just opened a run by the Jewel Theatre Company in Santa Cruz.

With wit and finesse, seven gifted actor/singers stir up an engaging soufflé of backstage plots and counterplots based on an old romantic farce called The Guardsman by the Hungarian Ferenc Molnar. It’s a tale chock full of the pretentious loves, suspicions, intrigues and seductions of a pre-World War I theater world peopled by the likes of Pinero, Wilde and Molnar. The play’s characters don’t have personal names; they go by their job designations – The Actor, The Actress, The Dresser, and so on. Their timing and contrast of moods have the effortless ease that only happens with careful and imaginative planning, intense commitment and rigorous rehearsal. Director Art Manke has obviously provided all of that and he’s to be applauded.

The story on stage is ostensibly the work of a character called The Playwright (a forceful, focused and aptly named David Arrow) who spends some of the evening walking the aisle taking us spectators into his creative confidence, some of it deciding what ought to happen next on stage, and some of it sliding deftly into a central role in the story.

It all starts when The Actress, played with high energy by the gorgeously theatrical Marcia Pizzo, starts receiving multi-dozen shipments of roses from an undisclosed admirer. Her husband and co-star The Actor, explosive, crafty and resourceful in the hands of David Ledingham, is meanwhile facing a kind of midlife romantic crisis. He frets, he fumes, he speculates on the possibility that when he isn’t around, his beauteous wife may be consorting with lovers.

Goaded on by The Playwright, he sets up a scheme that will test his wife’s fidelity and his own acting ability. He tucks a note into yet another bunch of red roses begging a meeting with The Actress pretending to be a dashing local military man called The Guardsman. As the lady is reading the invitation, her husband is loudly preparing to race off for a supposed sudden commitment to play Hamlet in a distant city. He exits and then takes on the persona of The Guardsman, complete with epaulets, boots, scarlet cloak and whiskers, and sets out to seduce his own wife.

You won’t find out from me whether or not he succeeds, but he does join her in a heavy-breathing reprise of her memorable first act ballad “My One Great Love.”

The musical score is a delight and the cast all sing ably. Yet no soaring melodies will set you whistling on the way home. Craig Bohmler’s music and Marion Adler’s lyrics, engagingly interpreted on an upright piano by musical director Colin Hannon, are organic parts of the action. They advance the plot and establish the characters, including an engaging foursome of backstage minions, hardworking but always with an ear cocked to dressing room keyholes and the local theatrical buzz.

Diana Torres Koss is marvelous, appealing and funny as The Dresser. A sympathetic confidante and fountain of good advice for the Actress, she’s a has-been stage star in her own right and proves it in a brilliant tango with The Playwright in a number called “Drama,” as well as in her wistful lament for a past career spent, as now, “Waiting in the Wings” but back then prior to making an exciting entrance out front.

Allen Darby is brisk and busy and sometimes caustic as the Assistant Stage Manager. Then there’s a winsome wardrobe girl played by the blonde Danielle Crook, and a guy known only as Wigs, with a hidden eye for the local soldiery, played with discreet camp by the able and resourceful Steven Guire Knight. The three of them get Act 2 off to a bright start with “She’s a Little Off,” a bitchy, fusspot musical commentary on the acting lapses of the leading lady in that night’s performance.

If you love theater, you’ll love this show. It abounds in stagey attitudes and backstage gossip, offered with bravura skill but never overdone. And it has some telling things to say about love and marriage and illusion and reality. There’s a pervasive and intriguing air of equivocation about the whole piece. Is The Playwright our fellow spectator or is he an engaged participant in the story? Both, it would seem. And what if anything does The Actress know or not know and when does she know it? At the final curtain, when everything seems on the surface to be all tied up and resolved, you can’t help heading out of the theater wondering if that’s really so.

If you plan to go, better not delay. The company’s current theater space in the Arts Center on Center Street is small. Jewel has launched a fund-drive for a planned move to the larger Colligan Theater at the Tannery Arts Center. But for now, the number of seats is limited and tickets should go fast for this engaging and beautifully performed production.

Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo