In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Rick Pendzich (left) Chris Klopatek and Alison Mary Forbes are a temporary romantic triangle in "Jeeves Intervenes." (PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

Chamber Theatre offers valet service to open its season

Decades before television brought the term "situation comedy" into our vocabulary, P.G. Wodehouse was writing sitcoms as novels and short stories. The Englishman was a prolific author who also penned plays and lyrics for musicals during a career that spanned more than 70 years.

A practitioner of the "write what you know" maxim, he focused on British upper-class society from the first half of the 20th century, and his most enduring character was the preternaturally competent valet Reginald Jeeves. The manservant first appeared in print in 1915, and his presence continued in 35 short stories and 11 novels, including Wodehouse's last, "Aunts Aren't Gentlemen," published in 1974.

Jeeves existed to look after the young and foppish Bertie Wooster, a rich and clueless 20-something who was not capable of extricating himself from embarrassing and nettlesome social and legal situations. The valet was something of a guardian angel, manipulating and rescuing Bertie without the young man even realizing the depths of his dilemmas.

Contemporary American playwright Margaret Raether used the Wodehouse short story "Jeeves and the Hard-Boiled Egg" as the foundation for her take on the indomitable valet, titled "Jeeves Intervenes." The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, which has historically had a strong attachment to England, opened an amusing production of the Raether play last weekend.

Like virtually all sitcoms, "Jeeves Intervenes" relies heavily on the comic skills of a cast. Although Raether's dialogue is snappy, the play's characters are caricatures, and the plot is superficial and predictable. The Chamber Theatre actors are the ingredient that causes the souffle to rise.

"Jeeves Intervenes" is set in Bertie Wooster's 1926 London flat. An imperious aunt, a young woman aggressively seeking a husband, a pompously stuffy former military man and Bertie's equally shiftless chum Eustace make entrances and exits through two acts. Jeeves is ever-present, even when not on stage, saving his boss from calamity, often at the last minute.

The valet is by far the most interesting character. He's a Renaissance man with an intellectual bent who appears to have an encyclopedic mind. Toss him a problem and he has a solution.

Matt Daniels glides through the role, oozing proper British reserve and paternal intelligence. That's funny, because he clearly is not old enough to be Bertie's father.

Chris Klopatek gets a bit hammy at times in his portrayal of Bertie, but this style of theater feeds off of large and physical performances, so he is forgiven. He plays the dopey dandy with the confident certainty of a master salesman, and some of his comic antics are gloriously silly.

Veteran Milwaukee Rep actor Peter Silbert makes his Chamber Theatre debut with deliciously humorous bluster, qualities that serve his old soldier character very well. His Rep colleague Laura Gordon (Aunt Agatha) rolls onto the stage with the subtlety and vulnerability of an armored car. She is an appropriately formidable object.

Two of Milwaukee's most versatile and under-appreciated young actors, Alison Mary Forbes and Rick Pendzich, are superbly cast here. Forbes plays the man-hunting Gertrude Winklesworth-Bode with proper airs and crisp attitude. Pendzich is the comic epitome of a trust fund kid with a sense of entitlement.

"Jeeves Intervenes" is an impressive staging accomplishment for Tami Workentin, whom we know better as an actor than a director. Workentin found the precise tone necessary for the comedy to work, she elicited choice performances from the cast, and she pulled all of the shenanigans together into a neat and entertaining package.

Special kudos go to designer Kim Instenes, whose vividly conceived costumes contribute much to the hilarity of the production.

"Jeeves Intervenes" continues through Aug. 29 in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center.

Big Bucks on Broadway

The most expensive show in Broadway history is several steps closer to opening night. "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" began full rehearsals and ticket sales this week after a delay caused by financing issues.

The money problems were no surprise. The Broadway buzz is that the musical's price tag will be around $50 million, much more money than anyone has ever spent to get a show on its feet.

Originally scheduled to open last winter, "Spider-Man" is being directed by the wildly imaginative Julie Taymor, who turned "The Lion King" into a spectacular stage success. U2's Bono and The Edge wrote the score, their first for Broadway.

Preview performances are scheduled to begin Nov. 14, and the official opening is set for Dec. 21.


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