Ghost & Spice Productions of Durham strives to maintain a high quality of acting in its small cost-mindful productions; but when an iconic film like Harold and Maude returns to the stage where it originated (and flopped — it closed after four performances), one expects tepid portrayals. After all, who could top the cult classic and Ruth Gordon’s quirkiness as Dame Marjorie “Maude” Chardin, the almost-80-year-old eccentric who befriends the wealthy, suicidal 20-year-old Harold Chasen, played in the film with wide-eyed innocence by Bud Cort, who never quite achieved the recognition throughout the rest of his career as he did in this role.
One expects the 41-year-old play to show its age and lose some of its original punch and the shock value connected to the decidedly May-December relationship between the two title characters. Not only does the Ghost & Spice troupe at the Common Ground Theatre in Durham bring their own stamp of quirkiness to the ensemble of characters during the run of the play from Sept. 28th to Oct. 13th, but they also update the play with a few changes to the original themes, as well as music more contemporary than the Cat Stevens songs on the movie’s soundtrack.
Idiosyncratic, hilarious, and oddly touching, this version of Harold and Maude is a show that deserves a larger venue, so more people can enjoy the top-notch ensemble of actors gathered by director Rachel Klem. Written by Colin Higgins, the Australian writer who also penned other iconic films, such as Foul Play (1978), 9 to 5 (1980), and Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), the film debuted in 1971 under the Paramount Pictures logo. Though not the box-office smash the company’s producer, Robert Evans, was used to, the film developed a fanatical following that kept it in theaters for years afterward.
Colin Higgins’ career spiked in the 1980s with his aforementioned hits, but it was cut short when he contracted AIDS and died in 1988. Almost 20 years later, this film would be listed as one of the best cult films of the past 100 years.
In this stage rendition of the film, the story opens with Mrs. Chasen (played with an appropriate nouveau-riche tone by Melissa Lozoff) interviewing a new maid (Amanda Hahn), who is shocked into screams when she opens a set of curtains to discover a body apparently hung in the window. Chasen proceeds to chastise “the body” (her son, Harold, played by Ishai Buchbinder); and in a quick minute of screeches and misunderstandings, the hilarity begins.
Harold, it appears, is adept at staging unusual faux suicides, presumably to get a reaction from his mother, but also because he is testing his own adolescent, Adam’s-apple boundaries. Throughout the play, he represents the terrible child every parent has nightmares about, a certifiably depressed young man who challenges all adults (even his psychiatrist, Dr. Mueller, portrayed by director Rachel Klem’s husband, Jeff Alguire), with his over-the-top flirtations with death and his fascination with the moribund.
One of Harold’s obsessions is to attend funerals, even those of people he doesn’t know; and it is at one of those funerals that he meets another attendee (who also doesn’t know the deceased): Dame Marjorie Chardin, delightfully played with aplomb and sensitivity by veteran actress and director Joan Darling. When she tells Harold that he can call her Maude, and begins to rattle off her personal history while trying to feed him peanuts that she’s gathered from the floor, Darling immediately sets the bar high. Her comedic timing, born of years of experience in television (she directed the well-loved and hilarious Mary Tyler Moore episode “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” named by TV Guide as the number-one best television episode, also nominated for an Emmy in 1976), elevates this production and one senses that the other actors have upped their game to meet hers.
What results is a fast-paced, alternately hilarious, thoughtful, and provoking version of Colin Higgins’ play that both rivals and challenges the movie version. Darling’s round black spectacles, her orthopedic sneakers, and eccentric clothing enable her to become Maude; even her age (77) is close enough to Maude’s 79 that Darling doesn’t have to stretch. The nuances in her speech, the tender way she relates to Buchbinder’s Harold, and her ability to make the audience believe in her joie de vivre are evidence of her knowledge of acting and directing (Darling has taught both at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has coached others at international seminars throughout her career).
Ishai Buchbinder’s Harold is nasal, skinny, geeky, and wry. When he concocts his various suicides, it is with an arched eyebrow and insouciance that reveals both his dark sense of humor and the pleasure he derives from the shock he causes. It is as though he’s keeping one step ahead of himself, easing his own rich-boy boredom by setting his own death scene over and over, yet it’s obvious that he never really wants to tempt fate as he carefully builds each suicide with safety in mind.
The audience knows that what he is really seeking isn’t death but instead to define his life, something which has been lost as a result of his own mother’s neglect of him. When he meets Maude and becomes enamored of her love of life, the tables are flipped and he finds himself willing to see the world around him through her eyes, the eyes of someone intrigued by a lonely tree or the green light of an ocean sunset.
Ghost & Spice’s presentation of Harold and Maude does not employ the 1970s themes set in the movie version. Nowhere is there a reference to the Viet Nam War that played in the background of the film, nor is Maude’s past life in the concentration camps and the number imprinted on her arm mentioned. Instead, she simply states she grew up in Vienna; and this version underlines the juxtaposition of age and lifestyle to build the plot. Some directors might have attempted to substitute the Middle Eastern wars for the Viet Nam conflict, but the play works well without that unnecessary thematic interruption.
Other substitutions do work, however. Harold’s mother suggests “computer dating” for her psychologically challenged son, introducing him to dates played in rapid succession by Raven Whisnant (who also provides the vocals in a Katie Perry-style voice, a change from the 1970s version and its Cat Stevens soundtrack). She and Rus Hames deliver their music from within what might be a sound booth in another production, and by “being there” while the action is going on, they become both spectators and commentators on the evening’s frolics.
In addition, Melissa Lozoff’s Mrs. Chasen is an updated version of her character, a heady blend of body-by-Kardashian, self-obsession-by-“The-Real-Housewives-of-Beverly-Hills” and child-psychology-by-“Ozzie-and-Sharon (Osborne).” A professional with over 20 years of experience in all acting media, Lozoff is one of Darling’s students and has credits that include daytime soap operas, as well as prime-time TV. When Mrs. Chasen pumps a Shake-a-Weight, while using a stretching band on her thighs, while talking on her Bluetooth headset and attempting to convince Harold not to mention Maude, Lozoff’s perfect comedic timing has the audience roaring with laughter.
Even the secondary characters — the maid (Amanda Hahn), Dr. Mueller/Cop (Jeff Alguire) and Priest/Uncle Victor (John Murphy) shine in their roles, offering accents when necessary, delivering their lines on the beat and with finesse, and proving they too have the chops to act on the same stage with acclaimed actors.
When the play closes with the actual suicide — not of Harold, but of Maude — as is hinted throughout, it is almost as though the production has ended too early for the audience. They want more, and the kudos are offered appropriately to the acting corps. One might believe that playwright and screenwriter Colin Higgins himself would have approved wholeheartedly of this updated version of his play and of the venue, though it might be nice if more people could enjoy this thoroughly delightful production before it ends its run at the Common Ground Theatre on Oct. 13th. The theater only holds 55 attendees, so if you want tickets for this stellar performance, you’d better order them now.
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 4th Durham, NC Five Points Star review by Kate Dobbs Ariail: http://thefivepointsstar.com/2012/10/04/love-life-more-with-ghost-spices-harold-and-maude/; and Oct. 3rd Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 3.5 out of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/ghost-and-spices-bumpy-harold-and-maude/Content?oid=3162415. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of Triangle Theater Review’s Sept. 28th preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/09/colin-higgins-dark-comedy-harold-and-maude-opens-ghost-spices-11th-and-final-season/.)
Ghost & Spice Productions presents HAROLD AND MAUDE at 8 p.m. Oct. 11-13 at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd, Durham, North Carolina 27705.
TICKETS: $16 ($14 students and seniors), except half-price Thursdays.
BOX OFFICE: 919-698-3870 or email@example.com.
SHOW: http://www.ghostandspice.com/ and http://www.cgtheatre.com/events.
VIDEO PREVIEW (by Rachel Klem): http://vimeo.com/48589609.
The Novel: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colin_Higgins#Harold_and_Maude (Wikipedia).
The Film: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_and_Maude (Wikipedia).
The Novelist/Screenwriter/Playwright: http://www.colinhiggins.org/main.cfm (Colin Higgins Foundation) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colin_Higgins (Wikipedia).
The Director: https://www.facebook.com/rachel.klem.71 (Facebook).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council.
This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review. To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Theater Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.