Friday, November 21, 2014

"l’Hotel" - A High Brow Comedy for Lovers of the Arts

Sam Tsoutsouvas as Victor Hugo, Kati Brazda as Isadora Duncan, Tony Triano as Gioachino Rossini, Deanne Lorette as Sarah Bernhardt, Daniel Hartley as Jim Morrison, Brent Harris as Oscar Wilde, and Erika Cuenca as The Young Woman.

    What do Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde, Isadora Duncan, Gioachino Rossini, Jim Morrison and Sarah Bernhardt all have in common?  Besides all being recognized, make that idolized, artists, they’re all also dead. And all but Victor Hugo are buried in Paris’ Pere Lachaise Cemetery, along with a host of other deceased notables.
Playwright Ed Dixon resuscitates these spirited characters in a new play, now getting its world premiere in a staging by Pittsburgh Public Theater. Like an amalgam of earlier concepts borrowed from Steve Allen’s "Meetings of Minds," a PBS telecast that brought together re-enactors of historic figures  to discuss current events, and "Steambath," a 1970s play in which recently deceased individuals find themselves in the afterlife and only gradually learn that they’re now dead, Dixon’s play sets the action in the here-and-now with the notables’ bodies housed in coffins at Pere Lachaise but their souls inhabiting a grand, fin-de-19th century Parisian hotel.
There’s also another borrowed  element from the film "Groundhog Day," in which the characters find themselves caught up in a repetitive quotidian cycle that begins each morning with the exact same order of events. Each day, this august company is serviced by a dutiful waiter (played brilliantly by Evan Zes), who goes about fulfilling their abundant requests with fastidious energy.
Brent Harris as Oscar Wilde

With the spirit of Oscar Wilde included the menagerie, Dixon has a springboard for peppering his comedy with an abundance of wit. Brent Harris brings off the character with appropriate doses of fey hauteur, memorable aphorisms and pithy rebuffs, especially when directed at his main antagonist, a grandfatherly looking Victor Hugo, played as an elderly alpha male literary genius by Sam Tsoutsouvas.
As dancer and choreographer Isadora Duncan, Kati Brazda adds a graceful touch with her breezy style of moving among the deceased and verbally interacting with them with light-on-her-feet dialogue.
Tony Trino as the Italian opera composer, Gioachino Rossini, is the target of much ridicule from his peers, holding steadfastly on to the belief in the merits of his artistic accomplishments against their scornful insinuations.
With a completely different aesthetic nurtured  in a later era and in a less cultivated society, Jim Morrison in the person of actor Daniel Hartley, plays the rock star with boorish manners and an excessive confidence in his erotic magnetism that seems to captivate the French actress, Sarah Bernhardt.
The task of portraying the overly dramatic Bernhardt falls to Deanne Lorette, who brings a lot of theatrical realism to the role and largely evades caricature. Dressed in regal sartorial splendor by costume designer, David C. Woolard, Lorette makes her character stand out from the rest, (only Harris as Wilde can compete with her charisma), and her every movement and word is riveting
The group’s daily treadmill of repetition is broken when Bernhardt discovers a ouija board with which she conjures up a spirit that tells her of a way out of her confining circumstances, a secret that soon becomes open knowledge to everyone. The vehicle for their escape is a young woman (Erika Cuenca) who, though alive, is more mysterious than the band of dead luminaries put together.
While the deceased may be tired of their daily routine, the play is far from tiresome. It sparkles with wit, clever lines, superb acting, many comic moments, steady direction by PPT’s producing artistic director, Ted Pappas, and a set by James Noone that’s worthy of  its lofty characters..
The program refers to the location of the comedy simply as "a hotel in Paris.," but a quick Google search of l’Hotel turns up the interesting tidbit that there is such a hotel in Paris, a quite good one in fact, that also happens to be the last residence of Oscar Wilde.
Noone's s hotel is a visual marvel, complete with a large crystal chandelier hanging from the rafters, golden wall scones and a massive staircase that allows the hotel guests to descend and rise with the regal aplomb that reflects their own sense of self-importance.
Dixon’s comedy is somewhat high brow, and it helps to understand the dialogue if you know a little about the characters. Wilde’s monologue about Bosey in the play, for instance, becomes clearer when you understand the historical events surrounding his disastrous affair with the lad. It also helps to know that Rossini is often accused of paraphrasing and plagiarizing his previous works, that Bernhardt had an amputated leg and that Hugo was supposedly jealous of Balzac.
And speaking of Google, I discovered two theater goers of the younger generation using their iPhones at intermission to get more information about the characters portrayed on stage. It perfectly underscored the one of the play’s themes - that greatness and fame are really fleeting and short lived.
In the end, the comedy left me wondering if the playwright didn’t subtly  plant Buddhist elements into the play as an explanation of his vision of life and the afterlife.  There’s an undeniable inclusion of the concept of reincarnation and the eventual release from the cycle of birth and death that only one of the major characters is suggested to have achieved at curtain fall.
"l’Hotel" certainly has the power to make you laugh, but it’s also a catalyst for thought and an introduction to seeing the world in novel ways.
"l’Hotel," a production of Pittsburgh Public Theater, is at the O’Reilly Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh through December 14. Phone  412-316-1600.

 Kati Brazda as Isadora Duncan, Sam Tsoutsouvas as Victor Hugo, Tony Triano as Gioachino Rossini, Evan Zes as The Waiter


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