“PICTURE THIS”, Soulpepper’s silent movie shenanigans Reply

Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
Picture This, now at Soulpepper, is like a Hungarian strudel: crafted with expertise and love, sweet but not saccharine, a bit flaky, and containing a filling that is both delicious and nutritious. The play, adapted by Morris Panych and Brenda Robins from Hungarian writer Melchoir Lengyel’s 1937 script, The Battle of Waterloo, is a “love-letter” to motion pictures, theatre, and all the arts.  Clever dialogue, brought to life by Panych’s insightful, well-paced directing, an excellent cast, and a creative set, combine to make this an enjoyable evening in the theatre.   Robins, part of the Soulpepper ensemble since 1999, also acts in the play, in a double role as film director’s assistant and wardrobe mistress.   Photo by  Cylla von Tidemann

the cast in a scene from “PICTURE THIS”

   The story is set in Budapest, around 1920, in the silent-film era. The first act takes place in a stylish hotel, where a big-time Hollywood director is staying.  Desperate but hopeful artists from World Films, a struggling Hungarian film company, converge on the hotel to meet him, some taking on hotel jobs like waitress, bellhop, and concierge. This leads to wonderful sight-gags and stage business, within Ken MacDonald’s beautiful turquoise and wood-paneled art deco hotel set (complete with golden pineapples).
Through the kind of mistaken identity often seen in comedy and farce, the producer of the company, Romberg, expertly played by Jordan Pettle, and his leading actress Milli – a glowing performance by Michelle Monteith – believe the director’s long-lost friend, now a furrier in Buffalo and also visiting Budapest, is another rich Hollywood mogul. They convince him to invest in their new film, an epic about Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo – which they promise to shoot in two weeks, throwing in a love scene with Josephine, to appeal to the box office. David Storch plays the timid, hen-pecked furrier, Willy Brown, with increasing zest and panache as he warms to the idea of taking the biggest risk of his life. Brigitte Robinson plays the domineering Mrs. Brown with comic intensity. Paola Santaluccia portrays an aspiring musician.
Act Two depicts the shooting of the film, with all the pandemonium of the battle itself.  The versatile, always-talented Nancy Palk plays Vergh, the film’s director, and also the faux-concierge of the hotel, with her usual commanding presence.   Robert Persichini, as the actor playing Napoleon in the film, portrays a boorish, over-bearing actor very well.  ‘Milli’ is able to resist his disagreeable attempts to seduce her; she plays up to Mr. Brown, the supposed patron who succumbs to her charms, but the main love interest of the play is between Milli and Romberg, who care about each other as well as their art.
It is not a spoiler, given the nature of comedy, to say that just when the film-in-progress, the characters’ lives,  and World Films itself are on the brink of failure, the plot conspires to save the day, through the intervention of the real Hollywood director, Red, played by Cliff Saunders.
A brilliant touch, after the curtain call, is to show scenes from the silent movie itself – the epic that never hit the silver screen.  Video design is by Daniel Malavasi, and Casey Hudecki was the fight director.  I liked Dana Osborne’s period costumes.  Bonnie Beecher’s lighting was effective, especially in the movie-making scenes, and Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design added to the atmosphere.  If there is a message to this play, it’s that we need art in our lives to provide dreams and visions – and that artists need to be paid for this work.  That’s a wrap! 

Picture This is at Soulpepper, Young Centre for the Performing Arts (Toronto), to October 7th.


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