Student theater org presents creative ‘Black Comedy’

Vassar’s oldest student theater organization, The Philaletheis Society, performed its adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s “Black Comedy” this past weekend in the Mug. Courtesy of Lindsay Matheos.

Last weekend, The Philaletheis Society, Vassar’s oldest student theater organization, presented their adaptation of “Black Comedy.” The play is a one-act farce written by English playwright and screenwriter Peter Shaffer and first performed in 1965. Philaletheis presented the show on Thursday, Nov. 1, at 8 p.m., Friday, Nov. 2, at 6 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 3, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in the Mug.

“Black Comedy” follows the antics of sculptor Brindsley Miller and his fiancée Carol Melkett. The couple has borrowed expensive antique furniture and art from the flat of their absentee neighbor, Harold, without his permission. They do this in order to impress a wealthy elderly art collector coming to view Brindsley’s work, as well as Carol’s pompous father Colonel Melkett. A blown fuse suddenly leaves the apartment in complete darkness, and when Harold returns early and Brindsley’s ex-girlfriend Clea shows up unexpectedly, chaos ensues.

The title of “Black Comedy” is a pun on the power-outage fiasco. The play is enacted under a reversed lighting scheme: it opens in a complete blackout, and once the fuse short-circuits, the stage is entirely illuminated. When actors use candles and other small lighters, the lights are dimmed.

Attendee Isabella Perez ’21 commented on the effect of the unconventional lighting arrangement: “I found [it] interesting that you could immerse yourself in the play using just your ears mostly, and still have a general idea of what was happening based on the dialogue and other noises; you can still experience a play without being able to see it.”

It took preparation for the cast to adjust to this unorthodox lighting pattern. Adina Ornstein-Luks ’22 played Colonel Melkett. She explained how the actors prepared for the scenes: “One of my [favorite] exercises that we did was closing our eyes and walking around in the dark. The play itself takes place in a blackout, so in order to understand what movement looks and feels like in the dark, we practiced.”

Julianna DeAngelis ’20, Sam Peterson ’20 and Alison Russell ’20 directed the play. DeAngelis wanted to make the experience as enjoyable as possible, explaining, “We had three directors, which was a little unusual, but we decided that would be a good way to help make the process more collaborative. We really just wanted this process to be fun and inclusive—the show is super fun and light-hearted, and we wanted that to translate to the rehearsal process.

The playful energy of the show is also evident in the directors’ artistic choices. Although the production was not an original show, Philaletheis’ adaptation sought to reinvent the play. Developing new characters was one way in which the directors made the work their own.

Unique to this version of “Black Comedy” was the decision to cast actors to play Brindsley’s statues, which were portrayed by Lexi Alexander ’22, Isabella Paquette ’22 and Bailey Wilder ’22. DeAngelis commented on the decision to personify the statues: “We thought having humans play the statues would be a fun way to create more mischief and drive the plot forward. We worked with those actors really closely to develop their individual characters and what specific ways they would interact with the story.”

“Black Comedy” was Wilder’s first production at Vassar, and she described it as an incredible process. “Being a statue was such an amazing experience because we really got to be involved in the creation of the characters since they weren’t in the original script,” Wilder recounted. “We started out by creating our statue characters, and then looking for the script for places to add in statue bits. A lot of it came from just improv during rehearsals that we liked and decided to add. It was a real collaboration between us, the directors and the cast, and I’m so happy with how it turned out.”

Perez appreciated the addition of the statues, stating, “The statues were a really interesting device for the play, to make it a little bit more interactive for the audience. For me, it kind of felt like a Greek chorus, because there’s three of them and they look like Greek statues in their togas, and they kind of explained and articulated what was going on.”

The cast’s bonding experiences added other personal touches to the show. Ornstein-Luks described how one of the most comical moments of the performance came to be: “One of the members of the cast named Oz [Johnson-Congleton ’22]—they played Miss Furnival—invented a song for Furnival to sing during tech week called ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Brindsley.’ That song got so many laughs every night of the show and it wasn’t even in the show until tech week!”

The play is noted by audiences for its eccentric and memorable characters, from the aging spinster Miss Furnival to the fussy Harold. Ornstein-Luks detailed how the cast was able to portray such idiosyncratic personalities, explaining, “I really benefited from some of the work the directors did with our cast of understanding our characters beyond the pages of a script. At one point in our rehearsal process, the entire cast asked each other questions in character, and we answered back. It essentially turned into a dinner party of all the characters in the show. That really helped us develop our characters on a deeper level.”

Although the tone of the play is distinctly silly, the joviality of the cast and crew made the show even more entertaining. DeAngelis identified this cheerfulness as the reason why the directors chose to adapt the play, stating, “We thought it was a fun and funny script with a pretty unique concept that gave the actors and designers a lot of room to play around and to be creative.” Ornstein-Luks gushed about the result: “I love the show and I have so many favorite moments … I think that’s because our cast and directors took such an already brilliant script, and made it amazing.”

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