BWW Reviews: Double the Laughs in UCT Drama's DIE BUFFEL / THE OPEN COUPLE Double Bill

David Viviers, Sophie Kirsch and Maggie Gericke in DIE BUFFEL

The University of Cape Town Drama Department's Autumn Season kicked off with a double bill of two comedies, DIE BUFFEL (an Afrikaans and English translation of Anton Chekhov's THE BEAR) and Dario Fo's THE OPEN COUPLE. Widely divergent in style, both plays take a look at the playful politics of relationships between men and women. Although almost a century separates the first performances of these two comic romps through the pitfalls of love and, their juxtaposition in this double bill revels just how little has changed when it comes to this most mystifying experience of the human condition.

THE BEAR, sometimes translated as THE BOOR and presented here as DIE BUFFEL, premiered in 1888 and was - to Chekhov's surprise and frustration - an immediate success. Set in the drawing room of seven-month widow Elena Ivanovna Popova, who inflicts upon herself a pretentiously pious misery, the play deals with the conflict that arises between Popova and a conscientiously pompous landowner, Grigory Stepanovitch Smirnov, who needs one of Popova dead husband's debts paid to take care of his mortgage. Attended by a maid, Louka, Popova and Smirnov duel with one another, first with words and then, when things escalate, with a pair of guns. Will one tame the other before the first shot is fired? Well, that's the play.

Popova is played with a mercurial verve by Maggie Gericke. Gericke neatly balances Popova's straight-laced rationalism with her impulsive unpredictability and draws the character in sharp contrast to Smirnov, the role of which is taken by David Viviers. Viviers embodies Smirnov's boorish misogyny by delivering his dialogue at breakneck speed. This choice is an interesting and risky one, because the resultant loss of some of the words could so easily undermine his performance completely. But the job of performance is to make meaning and because Smirnov links his sense of his own rightness with force, this turns out to be a choice that works.

David Viviers and Maggie Gericke in DIE BUFFEL
David Viviers and Maggie Gericke in DIE BUFFEL
Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

The meaning Viviers makes comes from the decision to flood us with Smirnov's words rather than from their literal meaning. Sophie Kirsch has a great deal of fun as Louka, jostling her superiors around,one eyebrow raised and seeming wiser than both of them combined.

The translations of parts of the play into Afrikaans serves Chekhov's original well, with a good sense of diction and idiom contrived for Popova and Smirnov. That Louka speaks in English is a little jarring, making room for questions about the relationship between the two languages that are not necessarily useful to the play, but which divides the masters and servant from one another.

THE OPEN COUPLE, created by Fo with his wife, Franca Rame, in 1983, pits a Husband and Wife against each other and explores the fallout of the double standards applied to the sexes when it comes to the way they behave in marriage. The philandering Husband convinces his suicidal Wife that having an open marriage is a progressive and wonderful thing, but the tables are turned when the Wife begins to boast about her new lover, who appears to be superior to her husband in each and every way.

Nathan Lynn's Husband is a classic Woody Allen-style underdog Casanova, a neurotic trying to be smooth, who is happy with the philosophy of "whatever works" as long as things work out best for himself. Larica Schnell relishes in the Wife's domination and then in her domination of her Husband, neatly capturing the Italian passion of the character. Both work to capture Fo's clownlike, post-modern style as they shift from character to meta-theatrical commentators, for which they are joined by a Foley Artist (Amelia Vernede) who provides a series of sound effects that illustrate and comment on the action of the play. Together, the trio works flawlessly as an ensemble to bring Fo's writing to life.

Nathan Lynn and Larica Schnell in THE OPEN COUPLE
Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

This double bill shares a production team headed up by director Christopher Weare. Weare has a knack for comedy and here he has found the right rhythms for the two pieces, both of which entertain the audience deftly from the first notes of music (Tchaikovsky's "Russian Dance" from THE NUTCRACKER for DIE BUFFEL and Bob Merrill's "Mambo Italiano" for THE OPEN COUPLE) until the playout. Leigh Bishop and Daniela Windisch's costumes work for both pieces, with a sense of detail and layering really coming to the fore in the designs for Smirnov and the Husband - two standout creations. Nic Mayer's props dress Weare's minimalist set design wonderfully well. The lighting, credited only to electric service provider ESKOM, could be a little more subtle design-wise, but the operation is carried out efficiently by the technical team who, like the performers, are also drawn from the body UCT Drama students.

Watching DIE BUFFEL and THE OPEN COUPLE on stage at the friendly little Rosebank Theatre is a bit like watching a television sit-com followed by a deconstructed sit-com. The experience is very audience friendly and gives the opportunity for these six students to wrestle with style, rhythm and rich characters. Student theatre is after all a meeting point between education and entertainment and in UCT's double bill, there is plenty of both.

Tickets for the UCT Drama Department Autumn Season are available through Webtickets. Both DIE BUFFEL and THE OPEN COUPLE run at Cape Town's Rosebank Theatre in Alma Road, Rosebank, until 10 May.

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