Review: Guest by Courtesy by Salvage Vanguard Theater
by Michael Meigs
On their opening night Hannah Kenah and Jenny Larson attracted an audience with lots of youngish faces more often lit by footlights, spots and stage lighting than by house lights. Those audience members were happily anticipating an entertainment that had been in gestation for two years. The two well known and well liked Austin actresses had presented workshop versions of Guest by Courtesy in May and November 2009 as part of the SVT's Works Progress Austin series.
They begin your evening with a lengthy cryptic tableau, a kōan of the brash physical comedy that is to come. The brightly lit black box performance space is anchored by a sofa set at center stage, draped with a white sheet. Two pairs of motionless bare feet are on view, the only parts visible of two persons seated or more likely reclining beneath that cover.
There's a silent motionless prologue going on here for those who aren't busy finding seats, climbing past audience knees, texting, listening to the hectic top-40 soundtrack or chatting: whose feet are we seeing? The pair at stage left are slim and almost self-effacing but there's a gauze bandage wrapped around one big toe; the pair at stage right are strongly defined, forthright with fiercely rampant big toes, the sort of feet that might be used for kicking butt. You have about twenty minutes to place your mental bets; I got mine wrong.
Once the house lights have dimmed, the sheet begins to move up, ever so slowly, drawn from behind, to reveal costuming (pink chiffon on one side, black and white frump on the other), knees, middles, arms and then, almost reluctantly, faces (one apparently benumbed with sleep, the other keenly apprehensive). After the sheet slips up and away, out of sight, you'll watch with increasingly rapt attention the deliciously detailed and precisely paced mime sequence as Jenny becomes aware of Hannah. These three minutes of performance are on a level of comic intensity that recalls the best of the old silent movies.
The dam breaks then, and the words pour forth. They're grown women playing grown women but the joke of their technique is that they rail at one another like six-year-olds, loud, uninhibited, competitive and insistent. As cousins, exuberantly familiar with one another, they play an elaborate tea party game; in their teasing and tormenting they reveal that Hannah is rich, married, a mother of three daughters and bored almost unto death by leisure and abundance. Jenny is the shop-clerk poor relative, dreaming shop-clerk dreams and doting upon Mr. Figleaf, a daily visitor to the emporium.
They quarrel, make up, torment one another and destroy things. We make the acquaintance of the bored cousin's nervous, conflict-avoiding husband (Jason Hays) and of the adored Mr. Figleaf (also played by Jason Hays). Other men and household servants are animated by white-gloved pantomiming arms thrust through black curtains. But men aren't of much consequence here, except as convenient objects, a turnabout on notions of traditional sexism. The bored cousin dares the inhibited cousin into a series of childish risqué games that push her far out of her comfort zone and into offstage behavior that could be called adult (in a cute XXX way).
In contrast to the pre-show racket, Graham Reynolds' music is simple and non-intrusive, a light keyboard commentary to the action. Kenah and Larson have a boisterous, insouciant subversive innocence, never better illustrated than in the lengthy scene where they collapse atop one another on the sofa, consumed in endless giggles, bubbling and snorting as Reynold's keyboard provides a carefree, musing melodic background. Here they test and prove the old vaudeville adage that any behavior becomes hugely comic if it's repeated or continued long enough.
The SVT announcements of the production cite the pronouncements of mid-twentieth-century etiquette queen Emily Post: "Have I failed today? Or have I not?" The point of these shenanigans is that these modern ladies are flinging that big fat etiquette book right out the window. And they're having a fine time doing it.
Here's the program card distributed for Guest by Courtesy at the Salvage Vanguard Theatre:
2803 E Manor Rd
Austin, TX, 78722