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Stage Review: Hay Fever
Urban Aphrodite presents the infamously crazy Bliss family from Noel Coward's classic farce Hay Fever, playing at Sasha's this week.
By May 27, 2013 Stage

That local theater company Urban Aphrodite premiered its production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever just days before Arrested Development returned from a seven year dry spell –- pure kismet, folks. I’m convinced that the lol gods smiled down upon us and bestowed, in tandem, two sets of brilliantly dysfunctional families for us to gawk at in sadistic delight during this rainy week spent indoors.

Dreary weather aside, observing the antics of a batshit crazy family that’s oblivious to its nuttiness usually makes for some pretty solid entertainment. The Osbournes? Dog the Bounty Hunter? Sometimes it’s just nice to watch people in silent, fascinated horror.

And that’s exactly the kind of reaction that the cast of Hay Fever manages to elicit from its audience. We gaped, we cringed, we tsk-tsked and furrowed our brows at the Bliss family, for whom theatricality and egotism seem to run in the blood. We’re first introduced to the Bliss siblings, Sorel and Simon (Amanda Daniels and Barron Weyerhaeuser), as they loaf around their family home in the English countryside. Simon’s finishing up a clumsy sketch of a female nude as Sorel slinks around drinking liquor in the afternoon, busying herself with every beautiful-but-bored type’s favorite activity: complaining. But to spice things up this weekend, she’s invited an English diplomat, Richard Greatham (Mustaq Missouri), to stay over at the house.

Problem is, she hasn’t bothered to run the plan by anyone in the family, and it turns out that each of the Blisses has invited his or her own separate guest to the home for that same weekend. Retired stage actress and Bliss family matriarch Judith (Sheilani Nandy) has asked over her adoring fan Sandy Tyrell (Ashok Zaman), Simon has invited his love interest Myra Arundel (Barbara Anderlic), and Papa Bliss (David, played by Mark Edward), a successful novelist, has asked a sweetly naive female acquaintance, Jackie Coryton (Sara Garcia) over.

The comedic factor swells as each guest trickles in one by one. Over-the-top aging actress Judith loves every bit of the flattering attention that Sandy is laying on her, and the shameless cougar eggs him on. Simon throws himself at Myra, but she's a bit of an ice princess and she's really not that interested. Sorel receives Richard with full-on coquettishness, leaving him spluttering and visibly excited. David’s too immersed in writing his latest novel and leaves Jackie to wander the halls looking for him. All four pairs drift off in their own directions and no attempt is made nor opportunity given to allow the four guests to get acquainted with one another.

This all builds up to an immensely satisfying scene at the end of the second act, when all eight characters finally end up in the same room and we see them all interact for the first time. It’s hilariously awkward, and the entire cast plays it all with excellent comedic timing and precision. Weyerhaeuser’s portrayal of Simon, a gauche Buster Bluth-like momma’s boy, is a particular standout.

Unfortunately for the guests, this is just the beginning of their Bliss-induced misery. The family continues to drive the four visitors up the wall and by the end of the first night, Simon swaps guests with David, Sorel swaps with mom – a mischievous act of pot-stirring that sets the stage for some real family drama (hint: more than one delightfully scandalous make out session).

Don’t expect much in the way of plot development here. As a farce, it’s more about entertaining through lots of funny, often fantastical moments. Highlights in this one include: a rich bitch bitch-off between Sorel and Myra, a drama queen showdown between Sorel and her mother Judith and a flirtatious exchange between David Bliss and Myra that almost felt too unsettlingly voyeuristic to watch.

All in all, Urban Aphrodite has delivered an all around excellent production. Watching locally-run English language theater in Shanghai is, at the risk of sounding like a jerk, often an exercise in patience and clemency. There’s only so much that foreign theater enthusiasts can do to put on a quality show with severely limited resources, all while holding normal day jobs, so we tend to turn a blind eye to minor shortcomings.

But what UA has managed to do here is pretty special: local theater with a solid professional touch. Hay Fever’s got all the charm and intimacy of a community-run play, but there’s a refreshing sense of resolve coming through here –- the sense that they’re determined to create a “real” theater experience despite budget constraints. Talented cast aside, it’s clear that a lot of thought and meticulous effort was put into the production side of things. The custom-made costumes are especially impressive –- extremely detailed and well-considered for each character.

This production, as well as new theater company Play the Spotlight’s recent debut of Black is the Color of My Voice –- also fantastically done –- is really giving us something to get excited about in Shanghai’s local theater scene.


Hay Fever shows on the third floor of Sasha’s from Thursday to Sunday. Doors open 7.30pm; show starts 8pm. Tickets are 200rmb presale or 220rmb on the door. Email to book; May 30 and June 1 performances already sold out.


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