American premiere of John Cleese comedy shines at Shadowland

Sean Astin, Kathy McCafferty and Scott Shepherd star in the American premiere of the John Cleese comedy Bang Bang! at Shadowland Stages in Ellenville.

Someday we may come to know how and why famed funnyman John Cleese chose a small professional theater in what was once the Borscht Belt to host the US premiere of his adaptation of an obscure 19th-century French farce by a prominent 19th-century French farceur, Georges Feydeau. Today is not that day – although the fact that Shadowland Stages in Ellenville has lately made a tradition of mounting one door-slammer per season, and executing them very well indeed, may have something to do with this decision.

Last weekend’s opening-night performance of Bang Bang! prompted me to ponder the theatrical principle that, in an expertly constructed sex farce, very little if any sex actually comes to fruition. The obstacles and interruptions and diversions are precisely what make it funny. It appears that, in response to the mixed critical reception for the UK premiere of an earlier draft of the play at the Mercury Theatre Colchester in March 2017, Cleese toned down some of his racier, more “gratuitous” gags in this rewrite. The only nudity on view consists of two middle-aged men racing around in baggy undershorts, their misplaced trousers of wildly unmatched size serving as incriminating evidence of their intent to cuckold. You could take a 12-year-old to this show at Shadowland and not have to explain too much.

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Feydeau is probably best-known on these shores for A Flea in Her Ear (1907). Bang Bang! is based on Monsieur Chasse! (1892), which was made into a movie in France in 1947 but never really caught on. The original title roughly translates as “The master has gone hunting,” and that is the excuse that wealthy Paris attorney Duchotel (Scott Shepherd) uses for his philandering excursions. As the play gets underway, Duchotel’s wife Leontine (Kathy McCafferty) is beginning to catch on; his friend Dr. Moricet (Sean Astin) ardently wishes to help her exact some revenge with a little infidelity of her own.

Though the English title creates the expectation that shots will eventually be fired, Cleese audaciously flouts Chekhov’s Law by never having the hunting rifle emerge from its carrying bag – symbolic, perhaps, of the consummations that fail to happen in the course of the action. Said action is predictably silly, requiring frequent concealment and escalating to a Keystone Kops-style chase scene at the end of the second act that makes optimal use of the ingenious set’s several doors, wardrobe, fainting couch and balcony. There’s also a dandyish young nephew (Ed Rosini) with a penchant for turning up in the wrong place at the wrong time, an inconveniently talkative concierge (Jane Blass) and a Clouseauesque bumbling police inspector (Paul Murphy) who might easily have been portrayed by Cleese himself.

But the physical comedy, while well-choreographed on opening night and likely becoming tighter with practice through the play’s four-week run, is outshone by the dryly absurd dialogue, especially among the conniving central triad. You’ll recognize Cleese’s voice here, both from his Monty Python and Fawlty Towers years, as he serves up his trademark upper-class twits with a badly French-accented sauce. Astin and Shepherd are both winsomely despicable; as is required in such a vehicle, your sympathy veers from one to the other, but you don’t really want either character to prevail in the end.

Ultimately, it’s McCafferty’s verbal and postural energy, along with her astonishing gift for facial expression – her sneer could halt a rhinoceros in mid-charge – that make this potion jell so satisfyingly. While she’s a familiar presence at Shadowland, the actress is less nationally famous than her two able co-stars; let’s hope that the producers and director James Glossman have the sense to keep her on if this production is destined to move on to the Great White Way.

Bang Bang! is feisty and fun and will make your face hurt from laughing. It runs through September 9, with performances beginning at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays (($39) and at 2 p.m. on Sundays ($34). To order, call (845) 647-5511 or visit https://shadowlandstages.org – and do it soon, as several showtimes are already sold out. Shadowland Stages is located at 157 Canal Street in Ellenville.

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