Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts continues to evolve both physically and artistically. The most recent renovation to be completed was the redesign of the second floor black-box space into the Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre. It comes complete with stadium seating for 90-people (with cup holders!). Truly lovely as a film-presentation space, Thalian Hall Cube Theater Project has been created to explore and showcase the space’s use as a theatrical and musical venue.
To that end, Tony Rivenbark has revived one of his favorite plays, “Box and Cox,” by James Madison Morton. Written in 1847, the play was produced in Wilmington that year. Since 1980 audiences have associated the show with Rivenbark; he’s a veteran performer of the role of Mr. Cox. This time he directs the show with Paul Teal playing Mr. Box, Shane Fernando as Mr. Cox and Caitlin Becka as Mrs. Bouncer, the landlady.
Mr. Cox, a fastidious hatter, rents an apartment from Mrs. Bouncer. He works during the day and departs at the same time every morning. Mrs. Bouncer, having noticed his predictability, also leases the same apartment to Mr. Box, who works nights at a newspaper and returns home at the same time every morning. She has hit upon the landlord’s dream: getting twice the rent for one bit of property. Inevitably, the gentlemen discover each other.
In farce we have the roots of the modern sitcom: fairly normal people getting their buttons pushed in implausible situations and going to extremes only to come back full circle, unscathed and ready to try again. In this instance, it begins with a minor dispute of bacon and matches and escalates to faked death. In order for farce to work well, the performers have to commit to it fully and completely: The more serious they are the more humor they milk from the situation.
Fernando and Teal play off each other beautifully with rapid-fire dialogue that would leave Lewis Carroll tongue-tied. Fernando brings to life a precise, attentive man, who is driven to distraction by the smoking, messier, more free-wheeling Mr. Box. (The stock characters we know and love begin to emerge!) Though each actor is wonderful on his own, the power of this performance is based on how they play off each other. This is completely a piece about the explosion and combustion between the two actors onstage. They have to balance, challenge and meet each other at every turn or else the whole show can collapse in a moment.
These two go at each other with an intensity that is delightful, carefully crafted and constantly teetering on the brink of disaster. The niceties of Victorian social convention mix beautifully with their attempts at manipulation. I have seen another production of this show (not associated with Rivenbark) where the choice was made to go for intensity, realism and to embrace the masculine anger possible in the piece. I much prefer Rivenbark’s approach, which embraces the farce and therefore actually shows more of the writing’s psychology.
Part of what makes this work so well is that both Fernando and Teal play truly charming yet slightly wary men, whom one could see actually choosing to embark on part of their lives with them. Neither are really scoundrels; though, both are prepared to resort to drastic means to protect their interests in a situation that rapidly spirals out of control.
It has been a long time since I have seen Fernando onstage, and it is joy to watch him and Teal up the ante on each other constantly. Their vigor is evident in the sweat pouring off each actor by the end of the show. Though the audience may feel like they got a work out, too, from laughing so much.
Perhaps it is the wheedling Mrs. Bouncer that manages the situation best, with her evasion and diversion. Becka has a stunning singing voice and sexy figure that frequently gets her cast as the ingénue in musicals. However, she is a talented actress with remarkable training, and it is mesmerizing to see her in a role that puts some emphasis on her range of talent. Dressed by costumer Debbie Scheu in a big Victorian hoop skirt and bonnet, Becka manages the housekeeping and lodgers efficiently and with the firm smile of the Victorian châtelaine. When the depth of her deception is revealed early on, it is hard to think poorly of this woman who is left alone in the world to fend for herself.
Likewise, I have seen Rivenbark perform the show many times and always enjoyed it. His love for the premise and the language is evident. The set in use for this production is the one he designed in 1980, and has carefully stored and retouched for every production since then. The addition of the clam-shell foot lights from Terry Collins at Scenic Assylum is really the finishing touch for creating not only the “fourth wall” between the stage and the audience, but truly creates a Victorian ambiance.
There have been a lot of changes to the theater, and part of this production was to showcase ways the venue could be used for small productions. I certainly miss going to the black box every weekend to see a show and would love to see the use of it revitalized. The choice to revive this lovely play as a way to reintroduce the theatre is inspired. Every aspect—from the casting to the details of the sets and props—is just perfect.
This weekend will mark the first time Thalian has done Saturday through Monday productions. The idea is that a Monday show will allow actors within the community and local service-industry personnel a night out to catch a show (weekends often mandate their busiest work nights). For a truly lovely evening that will make you laugh ‘til your sides hurt and tears run down your face, go see “Box and Cox.”
Box and Cox
Sat.-Mon., May 24-26, 7:30 p.m.; Sun. matinees: 3 p.m.
Thalian Hall’s Ruth and Becky Stein Theatre 310 Chestnut St.