UNCW’s theatre department has the antidote to the winter doldrums: a French farce. “Boeing Boeing,” by Marc Camoletti, translated by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans, is directed by Ed Wagenseller and brought to absurd and ridiculous life by a cast that is a delight to watch.
Bernard (Matthew Barkman) has got life figured out: He lives in a beautiful, luxurious Paris apartment, claims to be an architect (though he never seems to do any actual work), and has his life managed by a loyal, sensible and incredibly entertaining maid, Berthe (Katherine Rosner). Frankly, Berthe is essential to Bernard’s life—without her he would not be able to continue his deception to the three different women he is engaged to.
The first is Gloria (Jordan Davis), an air hostess for TWA. She has the classic New York accent known for driving fear into waitstaff across the Cape Fear area. There will be no pleasing this woman—everything said and done will be wrong, and she will not cooperate. Thankfully, she is incredibly beautiful with her rolled hair and sheer babydoll nightie. If Bernard were genuinely looking at a lifetime with her, he would probably slit his wrists, but he only sees her for one third of the time.
As Bernard explains to his long, lost school chum, Robert (Reilly Callaghan), thanks to the amazing world of airline timetables, he is actually engaged to three air hostesses. And none of them know about the others. Berthe changes pictures and cuisine for each of the women’s arrival, and no one is any the wiser.
Robert, a sweet, innocent unmarried man from Wisconsin is more than a little flummoxed by it all. I, too, was more than a little confused because Bernard is just not that great a catch—much less worth fighting for. But there is no accounting for taste.
After Gloria’s departure, Robert is introduced to the beautiful Italian air hostess, Gabriella (Rachel Smith), and the powerful, beautiful, intimidating Gretchen (Erin Sullivan) from Germany. Robert (and the audience) are enthralled. How did Bernard manage this?
Of course, it was too good to last, with the introduction of faster airplanes, and timetable changes. Suddenly, Bernard’s carefully orchestrated life collides when all three women are in Paris at the same time. Berthe and Robert find themselves caught up in a mad scramble to keep the women from discovering each other.
Again, the play is farce, so it does rely on stereotypes to carry some humor. Sullivan’s Gretchen is so unwaveringly certain and determined she is just this side of a Mel Brooks’ parody of the Aryan ideal of womanhood. Robert can’t get enough and follows Gretchen around like a starved dog. Smith’s Gabriella invokes the passionate and dramatic nature of women in gangster films. She’s beautiful but demanding and certain of the outcome of her plans.
Callaghan’s Robert marvelously oscillates between stressed-out frustration and a sense he must have somehow died and gone to heaven. It is very different from Wisconsin, and he is probably never going back. But Berthe deserves far more credit than she receives from her employer or any of his hangers-on for all her efforts. Rosner has to get a certain dowdiness in contrast to the elegant air hostesses, yet would still be the best pick of everyone onstage for a marriage partner.
Part of what makes farce so appealing as a form is the absurdity of what humans create in their lives—but it’s on steroids. It is a specific kind of humor for actors to learn to play, and it can be much more difficult than meets the eye. It requires an odd blend of realistic commitment and exuberant over-the-top joy. For younger performers, especially, it can be hard to grasp. But this ensemble grabbed the concept by the throat and went for it.
In an odd way, actually, it is an appropriate piece right now. It looks at relationships and the power balance between men and women—especially how we view marriage and domestic arrangements. Right now we are engaged in a national conversation about what that looks like and where the scale is going to tip. “Boeing Boeing” doesn’t come at the topic head-on or with a hard-hitting agenda, but it does bring up a lot of issues through humor—issues that are hard to discuss but are very real and necessary. What is marriage, really? Is it for life? What is the balance of power? Why? Is it as desirable for women as it is for men? Is it an economic arrangement—or something else entirely? Just like a bigger world filled with myriad answers, each of the six characters has a different agenda and opinion that drives his and her actions. The confusion that results is hilarious.
Randall A. Enlow’s set not only utilizes seven doors that allow for much door slamming, but it beautifully invokes the elegance of the 1960s. And it is Mark Sorensen’s costumes that are the visual pièce de résistance. All three women are in period uniforms for their respective airlines with color matching night wear. Down to the details, it is really impressive.
For a truly funny evening, filled with really strong performances by a talented group of young actors, “Boeing Boeing” is a great choice.