It’s easy to perform comedy badly, but the members of the Ursula Hall Theatre Group have truly mastered the art of comic theatre. This year’s show, [Paws for Laughter],is a thoroughly entertaining and incredibly fun experience, with an exceptional cast performing in five one-act comedies. Directors Will Collett and Claire Silvester have carefully curated these plays to showcase witty American satire – with some familiar Australian-isms thrown in for good measure.
The show begins with Who’s a Good Boy? by Anthony Wood – a parody of the film noir genre – which tells the story of a canine detective attempting to retrieve a poodle’s lost ball. Gritty high-contrast lighting and a subtle jazz soundtrack underscore the entrance of Rex, the detective dog, played with aplomb by Luke Powter; not many actors can successfully channel Humphrey Bogart while cocking a leg and asserting their dominance, but Powter’s characterisation is sublime. His fellow ensemble members similarly excel in their imitation of canine physicality. Matt Barton, in particular, brings a frenetic energy to his portrayal of Nipper.
The second play, Allison Williams’ Miss Kentucky,is set in a world which is just as bizarre as the last: teen pageantry. Beauty pageant contestant Shayleen (Annie Howard) is trapped in an alley with her mother (Jen Rhodes) while the interview portion of the competition continues without them. Howard is sweet and engaging in her portrayal of Shayleen, while Rhodes puts in a fine turn as Shayleen’s exasperated mother. Following a confrontation, their interaction reveals a truly moving mother-daughter relationship – think Toddlers and Tiaras, but with people who are somewhat rational and sane. Rhodes and Howard also deserve special mention for their ability to pull off convincing Southern American accents.
The final play before the intermission is The Fortune Cookie, written by Tuan Phan. Two university students (Rory Caddis and George Hibbard) are studying for their calculus exam in a Chinese restaurant when a philosophical argument about fortune cookies turns into a series of farcical character deductions that would make Sherlock Holmes proud. Caddis’ charismatic portrayal of Larry, whose goal in life is to write empowering fortune cookies, is well matched by Hibbard as his smug friend Johnny. The restaurant setting is very cleverly designed with ample room for the ensemble’s excellent physical comedy. A warning to audience members however: this play contains flying Chinese projectiles.
Following the intermission is Matt Casarino’s Yes, Mamet. Two David Mamet-obsessed writers, Caddis and Barton, have submitted their play to a festival, believing that Mamet himself will read it. Unfortunately for them, it’s a derivative compilation of Mamet’s own works and it’s up to Kathy Lee in the well-executed “straight man” role of Miss Kemp to reject the boys’ play, while advising themto rediscover their own voices. The exuberance in Caddis and Barton’s on-stage partnership lends them a wonderful stage presence, with Barton in particular to be recommended for turning profanity into a form of wit.
The final play of the evening, Check Please by Jonathan Rand, centres around two people, played by Powter and Rhodes, going on a series of blind dates that can’t possibly get any worse – until they do. Powter and Rhodes are well-cast in their long-suffering roles while the other ensemble members demonstrate their versatility and comic ability with a wide range of characters, such as a raging kleptomaniac, a guy who is just “creepy and nauseating” and a mime. The directors’ cameo roles are especially amusing, as is Ginny Harding’s totally unselfconscious performance of a girl whose multiple personalities are all attempting to speak up at once.
The costume department has done an incredible job, with every outfit accentuating the character’s main traits and helping to set the scene. Each set is well designed with the physical comedy highlighted by clever use of furniture. Special mention should go to the backstage crew, led by Claire Bailey and Rowan Rowlands, who have to work with difficult scene transitions. Despite the amount of furniture and props moving about the stage, the crew deliver some very smooth transitions between plays.
The Ursula Hall Theatre Group has put together a wonderful piece of comic theatre and the cast and crew should be commended for a very polished production. It’s not perfect: narrative-wise, the final play is the weakest of the five and the ending doesn’t quite hit the right note. Nevertheless, it is astonishingly good. [Paws for Laughter] runs from Thursday to Saturday this week, 8pm at the Courtyard Studio at the Canberra Theatre Centre. You are guaranteed an evening of incredibly funny comedy that’s both farcical and true to life. Hilarious and heart-warming, thisis a college show you simply have to see.
Tickets can be bought at the door or online at: https://www.canberratheatrecentre.com.au/site/what-is-on.php?detail=paws-for-laughter-0765