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Comedy for comedy’s sake

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JOY VIRATA and Jay Valencia-Glorioso play the sweet and murderous aunts in Rep’s Arsenic and Old Lace.

By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman

Theater Review
Arsenic and Old Lace
Presented by Repertory Philippines
Ongoing until April 29
Onstage, Greenbelt 1,
Ayala Center, Makati City

REP’s Arsenic and Old Lace is a chuckle fest. It is an absurd story about a family who happens to kill, and then at some point, compare notes on who has encountered more deaths. Arsenic and Old Lace, however, is just that: a dark comedy without anything more to it. It is comedy for comedy’s sake.

If you are the type of person who likes to consider deeper meanings, perhaps one could say that is play is about the strength of family relationships, no matter how absurd they could get.

“Although the world has changed, this story still holds true: that family comes first. Families have their secrets to keep, and sometimes, a skeleton or two in the closet, or, maybe even 12 in the cellar!,” first-time director Jamie Wilson writes in his director’s note.

Staged for the third time by Rep, the play centers on the crazy, dysfunctional Brewster family. There are the two sweet aunts Abby and Martha (played respectively by Joy Virata and Jay Valencia-Glorioso) who are quick to offer hot soup, freshly baked cookies, and tea to visitors and neighbors. But their self-concocted elderberry wine — made with arsenic, strychnine, and only a “pinch of cyanide” — is served exclusively to their lonely old male lodgers as their “charitable” work. The aunts like to think they kill them with kindness and compassion. The two women have mercifully killed 12 people who are each given funeral services and then buried in the cellar. The aunts’ nonchalance and audacity about their “charity” work is the source of the play’s humor.

But Joseph Kesselring’s play, written in 1929, and made into a hit movie under Warner Bros. in 1944, makes many time-bound references that the 2018 audience may puzzle over and needs to brush off.

For instance, there nephew, Teddy (played by Jeremy Domingo), who believes he is President Teddy Roosevelt and who buries his aunts’ “charity” cases in the cellar thinking they are yellow fever victims. Mr. Domingo’s character only appears from time to time and never ends his lines without saying “charge!” as he raises his arms forward.

Then, there is the black sheep of the family, Jonathan (Apollo Abraham), a killer who has had to undergo several face changes to get away with murder. The running joke about him is that he looks like Boris Karloff, who, upon Google-ing, turned out to be a 1930s English actor best known for his portrayal of the monster in Frankenstein movies.

He has with him Dr. Einstein (Robbie Guevara), his accomplice and doctor. Jonathan cannot fathom and accept the fact that his aunts have killed more people than he ever did. The audience laughed at the idea.

Then there is youngest brother, Mortimer (very well played by Nelsito Gomez), who is a theater critic who has to sit and endure boring plays and then review them. He believes the theater will never flourish, which gets the audience laughing at the silly idea.

Mortimer is at the center of the family mayhem and murder as he tries to take in all his family’s dirty and not-so-little secrets.

The play is funny because of the aunts’ “charity.” It is funny because its humor stays on the premise of the story, and never once strays from it. It is also becomes funny, if one takes notice of it, how all the characters — from policemen to the lonely, old men — just casually come and go from the Brewster’s home like it is theirs.

You have to give it to the cast members, too, who deliver and pull off the punch lines, albeit their Jurassic references. But special mention must go to Mr. Nelsito’s Mortimer who has mouthful of lines and whose presence is required in almost all scenes. He keeps his energy high and his words clear.

From start to finish, Arsenic and Old Lace has its audience laughing mindlessly over the story of a crazy family. A “classic” comedy in any sense.

Tickets available at the box office and TicketWorld.