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Pandemonium lets loose at two Queens theaters

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The above headline is referring, of course, to theatrical pandemonium, all very planned and safe, to be sure.

The word pandemonium can refer to hysterical laughter that spreads uncontrollably through a crowd or to widespread panic. Both these meaning came to life in two local Queens theaters this June, hysterical laughter in “Move over Mrs. Markham” at the Phoenix Players of College Point and widespread panic in Orson Welles’ radio broadcast “The War of the Worlds” at the Gingerbread Players of Forest Hills Gardens. Both were generally quite effective, attesting to the variety and talent available to theater-goers right in this borough.

“Move over Mrs. Markham” was written by the master of the modern-day British sex farce, Ray Cooney, along with Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame. Cooney wrote plays that he could star in himself, always in the role of a nervous, sexually repressed, morally indignant nerd, partnered by a sexually loose business associate. The two get into all sorts of predicaments, from which they are saved at the last minute by a timely turn of events and quick thinking.

Cooney recently has been served well in this borough. Just last spring, Theatre à la Carte in Douglaston presented “Out of Order,” the most rapid-fire, door-slamming, innuendo-cramming production I have ever seen of a Cooney play this side of London. The Phoenix Players, by choosing “Move over Mrs. Markham,” took on Cooney’s most ambitious work. I saw a production of it in London a few years back starring the great Cooney himself. Even there, the audience was rather taken aback by the wild shenanigans.

Again, there is the nerd, Philip Markham (played by Bob Combe) and his roguish business partner, Henry Lodge (Michael Davis). They are partnered by a naughty, sexually overripe interior decorator, Alistair Spenlow, played with pizzazz by Charlie Coniglio

Their wives, Joanna Markham (played with astounding British ingenuity by Sophie Bushong) and Linda Lodge (the extravagantly stylish Rachel Alt), are distraught by their husbands’ lack of interest in them. Things start jumping when both Mr. and Mrs. Lodge plan separate sexual trysts at the Markham’s apartment, while Spendlow plans an evening there with the maid, played by the delightful Sarah Anderson. Pandemonium breaks loose, of course, when all the couples collide and are visited by their would-be mates, Walter (Robert Scott) and Miss Wilkinson (Stephanie Butts), as well as a surprise visit by a morally affronted author, Alice Crotty, whom the husbands need to save their failing business. All works out well in the end, no immorality ever happens, and husbands happily rejoin their wives.

Cooney’s farces are exercises in pace and characterization. The husbands in the Phoenix Players’ production needed to work on their pace. When Walter appeared, things came to a halt. Markham never really developed his nervous nerd character; he appeared rather to be pondering his sexual dilemma, slowly. Pick it up boys. That’s not how Cooney wrote it. Luckily Charlie Coniglio saved most of these moments and, indeed, stole the show, with his physicality, the breathless speed of his delivery, and the chameleon-like change of mood. Brilliant, Charlie! But, indeed, congratulations to all for such an ambitious undertaking, overall so well done.

At the Gingerbread Players, “The War of the Worlds” was performed as a 1930s radio play, with the actors holding scripts in hand and walking up to microphones to say their lines in the manner of a radio broadcast. Given the animated style of their reading, particularly Vera D’Elisa as “on-location-news reporter” Claire Phillips, who was among “the thousands burned to death by heat rays from invading Martians,” the actors affected the sense of a real catastrophe in progress.

One can easily understand how this broadcast, if tuned into after the initial disclaimer that this was not a real newscast, would have created pandemonium across the country. Trey Sandusky grandly portrayed Orson Welles as a tongue-in-cheek cavalier who was having a romp with his play. The rest of the cast ranged in age from a youngster, Nicholas Favia, to senior citizens. All of the cast members brought individual style to their readings: Louise Foisy and Fred Guinther as announcers, Dolly Guinther and Stan Taffet as eyewitnesses, Steven Schott as a CBS executive, and Andrew Dinan as the philosophical professor who survives it all. Ms. Guinther is to be congratulated for her diverse regional accents. Bravo to all!

The Phoenix Players are at the Poppenhusen Institute, 114-04 14th Road, College Point. Their mailing address, for future production information, is 2462 Rockville Centre Parkway, Oceanside, New York, 11572. The Gingerbread Players of St. Luke’s Church are at 85 Greenway South, Forest Hills, 11375. Their November 2002 production will be Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Check out their Web site at www.spotlightonstage.com for information.

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