All's fair?

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  June 10, 2008

It seems Bassinet has some real estate, formerly a dressmaker’s shop, to unload, and things pick up when, after intermission, the action shifts there. Molineaux has arranged a meeting with the sexed-up Suzanne to try to break it off. Her jealous and muscular Prussian spouse (having slept off a drug overdose — don’t ask) surprises them, so Molineaux must pretend to be the couturier. Pretty soon everyone else shows up for one reason or another, including Yvonne, who’s sure the place is really “one of those vile and disgusting pleasure palaces of sin where every carnal appetite is satisfied.” Which, in fact, it once was. This accounts for the remark — made more than once as the characters pop illogically out of doors they should not have been able to get to, given where they last exited — that “it’s a maze back there.”

The cast members fare best who can handle the mounting chaos with some insouciance, however frazzled. These include Jonathan Croy as the beleaguered Molineaux, for whom no improvised explanation is too preposterous to be delivered with confidence, Dave Demke as his brunt-taking valet, and Elizabeth Aspenlieder as the libidinous Suzanne, for whom the danger of being caught — as the Prussian husband would have it — “in fragrant delight” is clearly part of the turn-on. Her physical assaults on the protesting doctor reminded me of Helena’s entreaty to Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to “use me but as your spaniel” — except that in this galumphing romp, the spaniel is an over-eager Great Dane.

War isn’t hell in Billy Bishop Goes to War; it’s fun, what with the catchy ditties and video-game-like heroics of the title protagonist, a Canadian World War I fighter pilot who won that conflict’s contest for shooting down more “Huns” than anyone else in the British Empire and earned a passel of medals before heading back to “the Colonies.” Gloucester Stage Company is reprising the popular, uh, warhorse (through June 22), which was first performed to acclaim by its creators, the Canadian team of John Gray and Eric Peterson, in 1978. The boyish Shelley Bolman does the honors here, with an apt assist from musical director, pianist, and slap-handed percussionist Will McGarrahan, and the actor does an ace job of conveying the play’s poignant subtext, which has to do with the hardening necessary to survive — and even enjoy — brutal combat. Bolman’s Bishop, initially a kid with a moustache, seems to grow up — and develop cool hatred — during intermission.

Billy Bishop is a sturdy showcase for an actor — in this case, one I’ve seen before but barely noticed. In illustrating the tale of the real-life Canadian, who went from Royal Military College dropout to sharpshooting figurehead, Bolman plays not just Bishop but 17 other characters, among them various stereotypical Brits, a French chanteuse, and King George V, who calls Bishop a “busy bugger” while pinning on the hardware. He also portrays Bishop’s rudimentary early-20th-century flying machine (“a kite with a motor”) and his machine gun, here characterized by a rat-a-tat hissing. At one point, Bolman switches characters in the midst of a word! But what makes the play work as more than a lively tour-de-force is the maturation of Bishop from a cheeky, accident-prone 20-year-old to a cool, calm, if somewhat reckless combatant — at least as interested in beating the killing record of Englishman Albert Ball as in defeating the Kaiser and the Red Baron. And Bolman, without hammering us over the head, makes that sad, glamorous transition chilling.

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Related: High-flying farce, No country for old men, Return of the screw, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Entertainment, Performing Arts, William Shakespeare,  More more >
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