Festival puts the 'fun' in funeral with season's opening production
BY SCOTT STEPHENSON
This year’s Blyth Festival played host to the premiere of Sophia Fabiilli’s farcical comedy Liars at a Funeral. It was a long-delayed opening night - Liars was first slated to be part of Blyth’s 2020 season, only to be stymied by the onset of the pandemic. Luckily, the creative team never gave up on their vision of moving Fabiilli’s words from page to stage - this opening volley of the 2023 season delivered huge laughs to a packed house, proving that some things are worth the wait.
There was a palpable energy in the air as patrons filtered into the Memorial Hall theatre, excited to once again experience an indoor live show. The play’s main character Mavis’ instigating secret quickly spirals into many as her big plan begins to unravel - seasoned director Krista Jackson keeps the action moving with a multitude of doors slamming at a pace that demands the audience keep up.
Nora McLellan positively shines as the merry and manipulative Mavis. McLellan’s capable comedy chops makes Fabiilli’s snappy script leap into life, and she exudes a boundless enthusiasm that transmogrifies every bad idea into one that seems perfectly reasonable. McLellan’s deft character work brings the farce’s zany first half into focus for the weightier second act, facilitating space for catharsis amid the crescendo of chaos that is considered a hallmark of farcical theatre. She knows which lines to drive home and which ones to let wander - her delivery of an especially euphemistic riff on Tex-mex food had audiences rolling in the aisles with laughter.
The rest of the cast orbits McLellan’s star turn as Mavis, with a bit of bonus mayhem created by the fact that the remaining cast members all play two characters each. Seeing which version of which actor would come through what door added a whole extra layer of fun to the show.
Amy Rutherford in the role of uptight daughter Evelyn has a few wry one-liners as a woman just trying to give her mother a nice funeral, but she is a bit stuck playing the straight-man role in a madcap world. The same can’t be said of Rutherford’s Leorah - a tough, amorous funeral director who has seen it all, but still knows her way around the bedroom. After the show, several members of the audience questioned whether or not Evelyn and Leorah were really played by one actor - a true compliment to Rutherford’s physicality and characterization.
Blair Williams comes across as totally committed in his dual roles as Evelyn’s endlessly supportive grief beard Frank and her obtuse ex-husband Wayne. Williams’ comedic timing is nothing less than superb.
Lucy Hill as the potentially cursed twins Dee Dee and Mia ably explores the delicate dynamic between identical twins driven in opposite directions while navigating a number of lightning-fast quick changes.
Each estranged sister is complemented by a male companion played by secret comedy weapon Justin Otto. The baseball player turned thespian portrays downtrodden funeral parlour worker Quint - as dedicated to the artistry of death as he is unable to express his deepest desires. While Otto’s journey is a charming yarn, it’s in the role of father-to-be Cam where the athletic actor’s talents are truly revealed. The cast across the board has a ton of comedic chemistry, but Otto’s frantic fumbling as Cam is a cut above. Otto projects some big Nicholas Braun (of Succession fame) energy, filling the stage with leaps, bounds and hugs all around. Characters and audiences alike can’t help but root for this scrappy underdog.
The less one knows about the plot of Liars at a Funeral, the better, but it’s safe to say that Sophia Fabiilli’s hilarious new work is a real winner that serves as a fitting return for the Festival’s indoor programming. The show runs until Saturday, July 8.