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A CurtainUp Review
Fondly, Collette Richland
By Charles Wright

. . .the knowledge you need is resting in your heart. . . . When the grass grows again in the spring, the knowledge can come back, as what is natural and echoed within you in the intelligence of your feelings — bright, dark, pure, conflicted, ghastly, and otherwise. The library at Alexandria was burned down, but everything written there is also written inside of you.
— Local Representative Wheatsun
Lindsay Hockaday, April Matthis, Mike Iveson, and Maggie Hoffman (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Fondly, Collette Richland,the new play by Sibyl Kempson at New York Theatre Workshop, is a high-style, high-energy affair in which the idiosyncratic artists of Elevator Repair Service (ERS) commandeer their spectators for an imaginative pilgrimage that will mesmerize some and baffle others. The performance under review began as a sell-out. After intermission about thirty percent of the seats had been abandoned, but the decibels of audience laughter were undiminished.

Commissioned by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (or "commissioned in part," as the playbill states), Fondly, Collette Richland is the first ERS production not based on an existing text. Press interviews and promotional material indicate that Kempson's script has been enhanced by the company's improvisational methods. (ERS, which has been in operation for more than 20 years, became the toast of the town with Gatz, the 2010 snob hit that includes every word of Fitzgerald's novel and requires seven hours to perform.)

The initial scenes which move at a snail's pace, introduce Fritz and Mabrel Fitzhubert (Vin Knight and Laurena Allan), a middle-middle class American couple. Theirs is a humorless, strictly regimented existence. When the dinner hour is interrupted by a surprise visit from Local Representative Wheatsun (Greig Sargeant), Mabrel warns him to "keep in mind that we will prefer to have no dramatic action this evening."

What follows involves plenty of "dramatic action," and the pace of the production accelerates exponentially. The Fitzhuberts and Representative Wheatsun are mysteriously transported to an alpine resort, the Grand Hôtel Conclae Vista, which is fancifully rendered, with a great many moving set pieces, by scenic designer David Zinn. They're joined by relatives and friends, including some forceful women inspired by the "serious ladies" who inhabit the fiction and drama of Jane Bowles (Kate Benson, Lindsay Hockaday, Maggie Hoffman, April Matthis, as well as Vin Knight in drag).

The American travelers scale icy mountains and plunge simultaneously into their own unconscious minds and spiritual depths. They encounter a motley array of characters — a dethroned empress (Lucy Taylor) and her spiritual advisor (Kaneza Schaal); a fellow in lederhosen called Sailor Boy (Ben Jalosa Williams) who captures a magic pig that dispenses dangerously potent milk; a visionary who manages the Grand Hôtel souvenir shop (Susie Sokol); the Krampus (Williams again), a devilish figure from Germanic lore; and the Ghost of Jesus Christ (Maggie Hoffman).

The play's dialogue abounds in references to mythology and religion, ancient civilizations, and the ideas of Nietzsche, Jung, and Bachelard. At intervals, Collette Richland, an enigmatic radio personality whom the script describes as the "protectress of theatrical productions," passes beatifically through the action, engaging in what she terms "a kind of reverse seance" via "the waves of afterglow from [her] radio program."

Under John Collins' direction, Fondly, Collette Richland has the giddy vitality of prior ERS productions. Here, though, playgoers can't rely for ballast on the familiar structure of a novel such as The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, or The Sound and the Fury. There's potential for fun here, but the potential depends on a game and willing audience rising above the cognitive bumps in Kempson's dramatic road.

Fondly, Collette Richland by Sibyl Kempson
Director: John Collins
Cast: Laurena Allan (Mabrel Fitzhubert), Kate Benson (Winnifr'd Bexell), Lindsay Hockaday (Joan Ham Hobhouse ), Maggie Hoffman (Miss Glynn Grills/Face of the Ghost of Jesus Christ), Mike Iveson (Father Mumbles/Hans-Pierre), Vin Knight (Colonel "Fritz" Fitzhubert/Peggy Gladys), April Mathis (Collette Richland/Dora Fitzhubert), Greig Sargeant (Local Representative Wheatsun), Kaneza Schaal (Velede), Susie Sokol (Cat Butler/Clotilde), Lucy Taylor (The Deposed & Dethroned Grand Queen Empress Queen Patrice, RMR), Ben Jalosa Williams (Sailor Boy/The Krampus), and Sarah Wills (Cat Butler/Clotilde in some performances)
Scenic Design (and additional costumes): David Zinn
Costume Design: Jacob A. Climber
Lighting Design: Mark Barton
Sound Design: Ben Williams
Original Music: Mike Iveson
Property Design: Amanda Villalobos
Stage Manager: Marina Lioce
Associate Sound Design & Sound Operator: Gavin Price
Dance & Movement Coach: Katherine Profeta
ERS Production Manager: David Nelson
ERS Producer: Ariana Smart Truman
ERS Associate Producer: Lindsay Hockaday
Running Time: Two hours 40 minutes with one intermission
Co-produced by New York Theatre Workshop and Elevator Repair Service
At New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, New York, NY 10003
>From 9/11/15; opened 9/28/15; closing 10/18/15
Reviewed by Charles Wright at a September 27th press performance
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