By Mike Keenan.
The Foster Festival, subtitled “Humour with Heart,” is now in its second season at the St. Catharines’ FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. Like the “little engine that could,” it has gathered steam, and I was not surprised to see a large audience on hand for Screwball Comedy, the first of two world premieres.
Screwball comedy was a genre of comedy film that was popular during the Great Depression from the early 1930s until the early 1940s. It is shaped by a female lead who dominates the relationship with the male central character, whose masculinity is challenged. The two engage in a humorous battle of the sexes, at the time, a new theme for Hollywood and audiences.
Thus, we have Cosette Derome as Mary Hayes, a would-be rookie news reporter and Darren Keay as Jeff Kincaid, an established pro with an eye for the ladies. Set in 1938, the story centres around Hayes, the budding reporter who tries to break into the male dominated newspaper world. She literally charges into the office of editor Bosco Godfrey who is dressing down his star reporter Kincaid. Tired of Jeff’s slack ways and lackluster performance, Bosco sets up a competition between the seasoned reporter and Mary to cover a society wedding. If Jeff writes up to snuff, he gets to keep his job. If Mary wins, she gets to replace him. The sparks fly between the two, and predictably, they fall in love.
Typical of these movies, there is fast-paced repartee, farcical situations, escapist themes, and plot lines involving courtship and marriage. Screwball comedies also often depict social classes in conflict, as in It Happened One Night (1934) and My Man Godfrey (1936). They also generally feature a self-confident and often stubborn central female protagonist and a plot involving courtship and marriage or remarriage. This is Foster’s model for Screwball Comedy.
A few days earlier I watched Foster’s play about a foursome of lady golfers, produced in Port Colborne. It was hilarious, focussing on contemporary female roles, expectations and tribulations. With Screwball, it was much more difficult for me to enjoy the farce, comedy that aims at entertaining the audience through situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, and thus improbable, and I have been spoiled by Stratford’s Moliere and the Brit slapstick of One For The Pot playing in Cambridge. I much prefer Foster when he zeroes in on contemporary issues involving conflicted characters with humour winning out.
Despite the silly storyline of Screwball Comedy, there are some theatrical highlights. Kevin Hare and Eliza-Jane Scott remarkably play three roles each, and it was great fun to watch them shift characters with ease throughout the play. The minimalist set by Peter Hartwell was attractive and functional, facilitating the character shifts.
Foster’s Old Love follows Screwball Comedy, July 12-28, and his second world premiere, Lunenburg, ends the season Aug. 2-18, starring Shaw Festival alumni Melanie Janzen, Peter Krantz and Catherine McGregor.
Cairns Hall is an appealing venue for this festival with its attractive interior design, first-rate acoustics and comfy seats. And you may bring a drink to your seat! For tickets to The Foster Festival, visit www.fosterfestival.com.
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