“Harold and Maude” tells of the growing friendship, then love, between a 19-year-old boy and a 79-year-old woman.
Such a scenario might have been shocking in the early 1970s, when the movie version of this piece starring Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort was released, and even in 1980, when the theatrical adaptation debuted on Broadway. Yet, in this post-Jerry Springer, reality-television era – littered with public discourse about multiple wives, spouse swapping and other types of relationships – the idea of a carefree and kind octogenarian befriending a young adult male certainly doesn’t cut with quite the same edge as it did.
Manoa Valley Theatre plays this work as a straightforward period piece, though, with performances continuing through Feb. 7. Even though it is a well-traveled play, the show reportedly has not been performed in Hawaii before. The MVT version might be a bit musty from this delay and conservative approach to the material, but it does ask some enduring questions, such as: How would the audience feel about this story if the genders were reversed and the older character was a male developing a relationship with a much younger woman? If different, then why?
Harold’s father died when he was young, and he has spent much of his childhood trying to gain his mother’s attention, primarily by faking his death. Most of the funniest moments come as part of his repeated mock suicides. Seeking attention from a motherly figure, he encounters Maude at a funeral they both are attending, even though neither knows the deceased. Maude is quirky that way, and she questions a variety of societal meta-narratives, such as the joys of materialism and the fear of facing death. We are born with nothing and leave with nothing, she points out, so what do people really own? And if they believe in God, why should they be afraid to die?
|“Harold and Maude”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 7
Harold and his mother are supposed to be very wealthy, and they act the privileged part. But the clumsy set design contradicts the narrative, showing, for example, the living room of the mansion as little more than a futon-like couch and a few small thrift-store tables. The set has been built strangely vertical and compartmentalized, with many steps and an awkward flow between key scenes, especially right after the climactic moment when a deceased character has to stand up and walk off, in full light, thoroughly killing the emotions of the scene. The hodgepodge setting even mixes in some stock imagery and video, projected on a wall, for a bewildering aesthetic.
Fashion in the late 1970s and early ’80s was in a transitional time, blending some remnants of the ’60s and leftover disco but also more diffuse and subdued, mixing earth tones and conservative patterns just prior to the emergence of the period’s hallmark neon colors, gaudy makeup and big hair. The costumes, designed by Hannah Schauer Galli, cleverly capture that brief moment of blending from one period to another by reflecting the transitional look without parodying it.
The leads, Ari Dalbert, as Harold, and Victoria Gail-White, as Maude, work toward a nuanced and delicate understanding of the story while being surrounded, for the most part, by a campy group of hams. Matthew Chang, as the priest Father Finnegan, for example, lay dormant in his scenes on opening night Thursday before suddenly erupting with hand-waving and a high-pitched, nasally whine while over-delivering his lines, only to fall back into the shadows as soon as his moment in the spotlight was over. Joseph Kingsley, as Inspector Bernard, seemed to be trying – and failing – to squeeze the audience for a laugh each time he talked. Erica Ito, as one of the girls Harold’s mother was courting for her son, had the unfortunate task of dramatically bursting into tears to end a scene, but because of the numerous steps to the exit, she had to hold this hysterical sobbing for several seconds while navigating the long stairway then running toward the exit.
While the script deftly mixes comedy and drama, including frivolity with contemplations about death, the local production design seems unclear in how it wants to handle these complexities or spottily executes these emotional shifts. Dalbert shows promise in the development of his character, starting with a stiff aloofness akin to Johnny Depp’s typical take on gothic characters, and warming to display a more complicated persona by the end of the show. Gail-White doesn’t get to grow much in the role of Maude, but she maintains a steady optimism that is appealing, trying to build, as her character describes, more bridges than walls. Those two create the key relationship well and prompt the related societal questions.
Yet, like with Maude’s house, this space is cluttered and open to interpretation. One can choose to see the treasures here, or the junk.
Directed by Betty Burdick, with assistance from Rasa Fournier and Barbara Nickerson; costume design by Hannah Schauer Galli; set design by M.J. Matsushita; light design by David A. Griffith; sound design by Walid Alhamdy; props design by Sara Ward; special effects design by Shell Dalzell; hair and makeup by Lisa Ponce de Leon; and technical direction by Newton Koshi.
With: Ari Dalbert (Harold), Lala Buzzell (Mrs. Chasen), Juvy Lucina (Maid), Richard Valasek (Dr. Matthews), Victoria Gail-White (Maude), Matthew Chang (Priest), Eriq James (Gardener/Sergeant Doppel), Erica Ito (Sylvie Gazel), Joseph Kingsley (Chief Gardner/Inspector Bernard), Kirstyn Trombetta (Nancy Mersch), and Alexandria Ireijo (Sunshine Dore).