If, after the first twenty minutes or so, you have no idea what is happening in UMKC’s production of The Way of the World, you will certainly not be alone.
There’s a moment late in the first act when Mrs. Fainall (Amy Billroth-MacLurg) breaks the fourth wall and gives the audience a much-needed summary of everything that’s happened so far. Billroth-MacLurg takes this one step further, momentarily ditching her British accent and upper-class façade to poll the audience and see who’s following the story.
“Yes! Ask her,” exclaims Billroth-MacLurg, pointing to the single woman who raised her hand last Sunday at the play’s preview performance. “Because none of us up here have any idea either.” This moment is a welcome relief for an audience who may feel dizzied by the fast talking thick accents or complex web of mischief and social interactions. I’m not sure if the break in character was an ad-lib or not, but it was genius either way. Now that the actors themselves have acknowledged the play’s outrageous complexity, we can laugh about our failure to keep up and enjoy the spectacle before us.
And what a spectacle it is.
The Way of the World takes place in 18th century England. It’s a classic Restoration Comedy, a genre that exploded after the Puritan ban on theater was lifted. Known for extravagance and sexuality, these plays poked fun at the upper class and their self-involved, often times petty social interactions.
The first moments of the play are the weakest, as Fainall (Jay Love) and Mirabell (Ken Sandberg) struggle to invite us into their world with long-winded exposition. While Sandberg and Love’s performances lack the energy of their female counterparts, much of the first scene’s unsteadiness comes from the material they’re given to work with. The play wasn’t written for a twenty-first-century audience, and it requires a little more work than many theatergoers may be used to.
Only a few minutes in, I found myself silently wondering how I would make it through two full acts. When Charlie Spillers bursts onstage as Witwoud, he wakes the audience up and forces us to be engaged. Everything about him is ridiculous – his hair, his clothes, his voice.
Witwoud, along with partner in crime Petulant (Frederick Rivera) – whose name tells you everything you need to know – really ham it up. Their hilarious introduction starts the upward momentum that builds throughout the rest of the play.
The best performances, however, come from the women. Across the board, these female characters land every punchline. Some of them accomplish this with nothing more than a look on their face, including Chioma Anyanwu as Mrs. Millamant (a lady who “loves to give pain”) and Heather Michele Lawler as Mrs. Marwood (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Lawler makes an exceptional villain).
Some of them accomplish this with gut-busting physical humor, most notably Megan Sells as Lady Wishfort. Sells really steals the show once she’s alone on stage and must be given credit for provoking the loudest laughs of the evening. Between her cracked makeup and suggestive use of a fan, Sells commits to the ridiculousness and forces us to give up any remaining reservations.
Katie Schiefereeke and Jeanette Delaney provide great contrasts to the wealthy ladies as lower class maids, hamming up their supposed inferiority and creating some great moments with the other women onstage.
A big part of this production’s success is due to Tristan James and L.A. Clevenson, who respectively designed the scenes and costumes. The production is an impressive visual feast with Clevenson’s opulent, almost cartoonish costumes and James’ enchanting set designs.
While The Way of the World left me feeling a little frazzled, I can’t deny I left the theater with a smile on my face. If you can make it through to the second act, when the simmering mischief is brought to a boil, you’ll be rewarded with a hilarious pay-off that is well worth the journey.
The Way of the World opens Wednesday, Feb. 15 in Grant Hall room 306. Preview performances are taking place Feb. 10-14 and are open to the public.