Chicago Theatre Review
A Delicious Holiday Treat
Jeeves Intervenes – Shaw Chicago
Featherbrained British upperclass playboy, Bertie Wooster, and his droll, faithful manservant, Jeeves, became the popular main characters of a collection of ten novels and over 30 short stories, by British author, P.G. Wodehouse. Just as beloved today as when first created in 1915, this perfectly matched duo rank as two of the most admired comedic characters in 20th century literature. The stories also spawned several feature films, television episodes and theatrical comedies.
Ten years ago, playwright Margaret Raether premiered her loosely adapted theatrical version of one of P.G. Wodehouse’s short stories, “Jeeves and the Hard-boiled Egg,” at Artists’ Ensemble in Rockford. Since the success of her first play, Ms. Raether has penned several other stage versions of Wodehouse’s popular stories about wealthy British playboy twit, Bertie Wooster, and his dry-witted, sagacious valet, Jeeves. The playwright’s adaptations fittingly capture the humor and satire of these charming, drawing room comedies and they’ve been produced everywhere. One can only hope that ShawChicago, who is currently enjoying a successful run of Raether’s initial attempt at stage adaptions of these comedies, will include a Jeeves and Wooster comedy in every season from now on.
Directed with his usual sharpness, intellectual skill and an eye for detail, artistic director Robert Scogin has slightly broken away from his trademark formal staged reading style of presentation. There are moments when he directs his actors to acknowledge their scene partner standing directly next to them, and he has even staged a chase scene. Scogin’s simple, podium-based production works particularly well for this veddy British comedy, but his delightfully whimsical slapstick staging in the latter scenes is unexpected fun and perfect for this play.
The cast is led by six of the most accomplished members of the ShawChicago stable of actors. Christian Gray, who’s delighted audiences here, at First Folio and all over Chicagoland, is Bertie Wooster. Eloquently verbose, with a rubber face whose expressions convey hilarity at the drop of a crumpet, Gray creates a lovable, highbrow nincompoop who continually gets himself into awkward situations, but must rely on the cleverness and clear-thinking of his butler to save the day. Jeeves, Bertie’s savior servant and surrogate father figure, is played with subtle, sardonic wit by Doug MacKechnie. Seen last season as Victor Prynne, in ShawChicago’s “Private Lives,” as well as in countless other staged readings and at other theatres around town, Mr. MacKechnie is a master of the slow burn. His reactions and snappy comebacks are the basis for most of the comedy in this production. In short, Doug is brilliant as Jeeves.
Gary Alexander, another ShawChicago favorite, who’s frequented several other area stages and has appeared on television in “Chicago Fire,” is absolutely delightful as Eustace Bassington-Bassington. He brings a proper English edge to Bertie Wooster’s good friend, that reminds audiences of the fetching fussiness of David Hyde Pierce’s Niles Frasier. His onstage relationship with Gray’s lovely, talented real-life wife, Lydia Berger Gray, as Gertrude Winklesworth-Bode, is magical. This terrific actress, who’s dazzled audiences as Eliza Doolittle in “Pygmalion,” among many other roles, is smart and enchantingly manipulative as a young woman of wealth who’s set her cap on marrying Bertie.
Bertie’s unwanted engagement to Gertrude has been forced upon him by his scheming Aunt Agatha. She’s played with regal relish and staunch determination by this company’s reigning dowager, Mary Michell. If “Keeping Up Appearances” ever takes to the stage, this actress is a shoo-in to play Hyacinth Bucket. With the mere raising of an eyebrow this actress can silence a whining nephew, like Bertie, or encourage the amorous advances of an old suitor, such as Sir Rupert Watlington-Pipps, played here by talented veteran character actor, Jack Hickey. Wrapping his well-trained lips around a sportive Scottish brogue, Mr. Hickey creates a pompous Uncle to Alexander’s Eustace, and a romantic interest for old ironsides Aunt Agatha. In short, this entire pocket-size cast is sensational.
With such a delicious holiday treat, ShawChicago has (hopefully) begun a new tradition, by including one of P.G. Wodehouse’s most excellent creations in their season. Audiences will leave this production with a permanent smile on their faces and their sides aching from laughter. This two-hour production, while not necessarily a Christmas play, is a real holiday gift to audiences, and it’s just waiting to be unwrapped. Those new to the work of this accomplished company, as well as those who already know the bewitching beauty to be found in ShawChicago’s wonderful productions of staged readings, will revel in this enjoyable comedy of manners that’s sure to bring warmth to these cold winter evenings.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 26-December 19 by ShawChicago at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 312-587-7390 or by going to www.shawchicago.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.