What: “The Matchmaker,” by Thornton Wilder
When: Performs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, till March 3
Where: Cascades Theatre, 148 NW Greenwood Ave., Bend
Cost: $20, $16 students and seniors
Contact: cascadestheatrical.org or 541-389-0803
Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker” is the kind of comedy you don’t see enough of: it has a fast-paced plot, sharply drawn characters, witty dialogue, physical action, and requires an ensemble cast that can pull off all of the above.
The group Cascades Theatrical Company has assembled under the direction of Brian Johnson can and does. During a full run-through rehearsal one week ago, the cast performed the farcical play with only a hiccup or two in the execution, which clocked in about two hours. Johnson was confident they could accelerate more, and to push with the metaphor some more, with a week left to rehearse, the engine should be humming come Friday’s opening. With some madcap situations and occasional mistaken identity, it’s not wrong to call it a farce. But Johnson believes it stops a little shy of full-throttle farce. He likens “The Matchmaker” to the jealous little brother of actual farces.
Whatever you want to call it, the story starts neatly in the home of the mean, high-strung merchant Horace Vandergelder, played by Mark McConnell, who lives above his feed store in Yonkers, New York. Successful? Why, he’s a half-millionaire! That’s a lot of bread today, but the show is set in the 1880s, when $500,000 equaled several loaves by today’s bread standards.
At the same time, Vandergelder is not getting any younger, and so, he’s taking a chance on love. Enter matchmaker Miss Dolly Levi (Kathryn F. Galan), who’s professional efforts are undermined by her designs on marrying Vandergelder herself. That could, would and should raise red flags today, but this is an old-fashioned play, and there’s no such thing as a situation-comedy ethics panel (yet). Nevertheless, he tells Levi he’s intent on marrying Irene Molloy (Catherine Christie), a New York milliner who hates hats and is way too young for him. Meanwhile, there’s another woman in the city Levi thinks he should meet. While it’s abundantly obvious that this other woman does not exist, in pure comedy fashion, Vandergelder has not a clue.
But the matchmaking adventures don’t stop there: Ambrose Kemper (Thomas Avery) has designs on marrying Vandergelder’s niece, Ermengarde (Violet Landers), much to the chagrin of Vandergelder. They make plans to meet in New York, where Ermengarde’s being sent to stay in New York with Flora Van Huysen (Cindy McConnell) just to fend off any impending, offending marriage plans between Kemper and Ermengarde.
And just to make sure there’s enough of these players for fun and mayhem in New York, Vandergelder’s put-upon chief clerk Cornelius Hackl (Caleb Neet) and co-worker Barnaby Tucker (Owen Litehiser) decide to create a shop mishap and, yes, head off to New York themselves. The show includes a number of great smaller roles, including Malachi Stack (Levi Wagoner) the cabman (Ray Abanto), ensuring that comedy high jinks ensue.
Asked about the biggest challenges he faced with mounting this production, Johnson replied, “The same as my previous plays, only perhaps slightly more amplified, is keeping it moving and making sure that the timing is precise. More than any other play I’ve directed, this one was almost more like choreographing a dance … because I want actors in very precise places on the stage at very precise moments. I want them moving in certain ways that I would not normally insist on in another play. And so far none of them seem to hate me for this yet.”
Johnson believes “The Matchmaker” is an under-appreciated classic.
“It’s a classic, but I think it’s an overlooked classic, especially in American theater,” he said. “Critics will focus on Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill and all the heavy hitters. If they think of Thornton Wilder at all, they think of ‘Our Town,’ which is the really popular one, in part because it’s so easy to do. High schools can do it. Community theaters can do it. Nobody mentions ‘The Matchmaker.’”
That was not always the case; when “The Matchmaker” debuted on Broadway in 1955, it ran for over 400 performances. But the show’s history dates back even further. In the late 1930s, Wilder wrote a different version, called “The Merchant of Yonkers.”
According to The Thornton Wilder Society, from the moment he began work on “The Merchant of Yonkers,” “Thornton Wilder wrote that he was indebted to other plays, specifically a comedy by Johann Nestroy, ‘Einen Jux will er sich Machen’ (Vienna, 1842), which was in turn based upon an English original, ‘A Day Well Spent’ (London, 1835) by John Oxenford.”
However, “The Merchant of Yonkers” was a flop. Years later, Wilder was encouraged to retool it.
“It’s not fair to say he rewrote it,” Johnson said. “He just touched up a little bit. The key difference was the director. The one in the 1930s, he didn’t see the potential for humor in it. The one in the 1950s read it and went, ‘We’ve got to turn this into full-blown, loud farce. And so that’s what made it a hit.”
For better or worse, less than a decade after the debut of “The Matchmaker,” the show was reconfigured into the musical production “Hello, Dolly!”
The success of “Hello, Dolly!” quickly overshadowed “The Matchmaker.”
“Once that was famous, that’s the story everybody wanted to see and do,” Johnson said. “That’s the impression I get.”
Now is your chance, reader, to rectify the situation. As Johnson notes, it is family-friendly.
“I plan to bring my 6-year-old daughter. I know she’s going to love it, because there’s enough physical humor that she will find amusing. There’s enough verbal wordplay that my 14-year-old son will love it,” he said. “In terms of content, objectionable language, violence, sex, it is family-friendly. … I would encourage anybody to come see it. It’s completely harmless fun.”
This might be the last play Johnson — director of last season’s “And Then There Were None” — directs for a while. He’s not ruling it, or acting in a play, altogether out of the question, but he’s decided to start focusing on his primary interest: film production.
“I’ve been doing community theater keeping myself busy, and I’ve realized that I’ve put film production on the back burner,” he said. “So it’s time to switch burners.”