Friday, February 10, 2017

The Royal Family Middles

If the Kardashians lived in the 1920s, this would be for them. 

Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

In this era where we are working to ease the yawning gap between the 1% and the 99%, it can be a little difficult to identify with people on the opposite side of the spectrum from you.

The Royal Family, a play about a prestigious acting family's (the Cavendishes) inner workings (think Keeping Up With The Kardashians circa 1927), puts a spotlight on the 1%, or at least those who to appear to be part of it. The Cavendishes share a lavish, gorgeously appointed apartment in downtown New York City. The matriarch, Fanny, is reaching the end of her career. Fanny's daughter Julie is enjoying a career peak and is about to premiere a new show with her daughter Gwen. Gwen is dating her sweetheart Perry, and Julie is anticipating a visit from her former lover Gilbert.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Their relationships are severely strained by the Cavendish's inability to soften their dramatic tendencies. Tony, Julie's brother, sweeps in and disturbs the family peace on rumors of having assaulted a member of the film he was playing in; Julie demands that Gwen lay down her personal life for the success of the family and their upcoming show; Gilbert works hard to remove Julie from her family's toxic dependence; and Fanny is unwilling to accept that age has rendered her finished with anything mildly adventurous or performative.

The play meanders into a third act (this show is LONG - two intermissions, be prepared), in which we see the resolution of both love stories (Julie and Gilbert marry, as do Gwen and Perry), and the Cavendish's eternal inability to leave the stage. All of the family members are sucked into the vortex of performance, to a fault. As this is meant to be a parody of the illustrious Barrymore family, it should be no surprise that there is an abundance of flair, overwrought drama and unnecessary conflicts along the way, and that the show closes with a dramatic event.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Michelle O'Neill anchors the show as Julie Cavendish, bringing a Joan Crawford-wire-hanger intensity to her part. She clearly gels with Robert Berdahl, who plays Gilbert Marshall (which somehow came off with a Pierce Brosnan vibe). Victoria Janicki alternately simpers and glowers as Gwen Cavendish; Matthew Saldivar is hilarious as the roguish Tony Cavendish; and Elizabeth Franz steers the action as the matriarch Fanny. David Darrow shines a light as Gwen's husband Perry and has an innate sweetness that's very pleasant. Shawn Hamilton similarly brings a welcome warmth to his portrayal of the Cavendish's manager Oscar Wolfe.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Overall, I have to be honest: I struggled with this show. This is a distinguished cast, and they give it a strong shot, so kudos to them. But the story just didn't capture me. There are so many people struggling right now, and rather than feeling like an escape from the craziness of the world outside, The Royal Family felt so overwrought and unnecessarily tense. It's a comedic play and it should tap into so many societal norms today despite being decades old, and there are elements that do feel relevant - but it was hard to feel any empathy for the behavior of the characters. They are so spoiled and make so much fuss over such little things that it just fell apart for me. Again: this is not a reflection of the quality of the direction or cast or the production itself, just of my feelings of the script. It's always hard to balance personal preference with the quality of a show when constructing a review, and this one just didn't jive for me.

The biggest positive standout, which must be acknowledged, is the riveting production design. No expense was spared to build the lavish set and on-point costumes. The apartment is outfitted with an imposing, full-length set of bookshelves packed with all manner of curios; cozy looking furniture including a fainting couch; and a poetically painted patterned wallpaper set. The Cavendishes are clad in a rich array of thick furs, gossamer silks, and eye popping, on-trend dresses. Kudos to Marte Johanne Ekhougen's lavish scenic design; Brenda Abbandandolo's riveting costume design; and the dramatic lighting design from Bradley King (which lends a cinematic feel to every scene). You can't help but be pulled in by such gorgeous surroundings, and it does help to pass the time as you watch!
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Revivals are always tricky, especially comedic ones. Sometimes, they soar (as witnessed by last year's marvelous update of Harvey at the Guthrie, which breathed fresh life into a story I never even liked) and sometimes, they stall. The Royal Family middles for me. If you're looking for a gorgeous period staging and are a fan of the reality show life, this will probably catch you. If you're looking for something totally abstracted from today's woes, or with a little teeth to it, you won't find it here. The Royal Family runs through March 19 at the Guthrie theater; find more information and buy your tickets by clicking on this link.

And as a note: make sure to join the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers on Sunday at Park Square Theater's matinee performance of Nina Simone: Four Women! This is one of the best shows I've ever seen and I can't wait to see it again. We will be hosting a talk-back after the performance, so make sure to swing by; tickets are quickly disappearing!