As soon as Ryan Case makes his entrance as Madame Rosepettle, we know from her condescending sneers and uppity manners, or lack thereof, that she is a force to be reckoned with. Just what kind of force, however, remains a mystery. Some violent neuroticism lurks beneath the surface, occasionally betraying the glamorous veneer of wealth that her costuming and mannerisms suggest.
As she checks into a Port Royale hotel in the first few minutes of Arthur Kopit's Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad, her luggage reveals even more.
Madame Rosepettle is the kind of woman who keeps Venus' flytraps and piranhas for pets. She is the kind of woman who insists on traveling with her dead, stuffed husband, whom she stores in the closet or next to her bed. She tips the bell boys in the form of rare coins that are not worth anything. She enjoys the prospect of getting the entire hotel staff fired. She is the kind of woman who stalks couples on the beach just to kick sand in their faces when things get steamy.
She is, in short, pretty awful. And fascinating.
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Balagula Theatre concludes its first full season of plays with this final installment of absurdist fare. On the heels of the work of dramatic heavyweights like Beckett and Sartre comes Kopit's bizarre tale of extreme family dysfunction, including dark criticism of the disjointed society that breeds the Rosepettles of the world.
Director Natasha Williams and her cast deserve credit for cultivating characters whose every behavior and motive are drawn from a deeply felt but repressed conflict, conflicts that simmer and bubble throughout the bulk of the play, reaching the boiling point by curtain.
While billed as absurdist, Oh Dad, Poor Dad is surprisingly accessible.
The first act introduces us not only to Rosepettle but her son Jonathan (played by School for the Creative and Performing Arts junior Will Swisher). Keeping himself occupied with a collection of stamps, coins and books, Jonathan reveals that he never goes outside. Evidently, in all of his 20-some years, he's never met anyone other than his mother and the occasional bell boy. His only interaction with the outside world is by spying on people with a telescope. A life of entire isolation is his mother's gift to him; her plan is to keep him "pure" from harm and the ugliness of the world.
If the first act sets up the disturbing premise of the family's dysfunction, the second act dives deeply into the core of that dysfunction.
Here is where the acting goes from good to sublime, particularly as Case sinks his teeth into Madame Rosepettle's long and voluminous monologue about what really happened to her husband. Case, framed hauntingly by Ben Burke's lighting design, takes the audience on a gauntlet of emotions as Rosepettle confesses the story of her life to an appalled potential suitor.
Here is where the play hits pay dirt. We see that Rosepettle is a cruel tyrant, yes, but we also see that her eccentric behaviors are just twisted manifestations of a hypersensitivity combined with her own sheltered upbringing.
She isn't exactly redeemed, but we achieve a kind of bewildered empathy just in time for the play's thrilling climax, when mother and son's neuroticism both lose containment and tragedy strikes.