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REVIEW: Throne Full of Laughs in Royal Family (Guthrie Theater)

Theatre manager Oscar Wolfe (Shawn Hamilton) looks on as the acting clan of Kitty LeMoyne Dean (Angela Timberman), Herbert Dean (Bill McCallum), Fanny Cavendish (Elizabeth Franz), and Julie Cavendish (Michelle O’Neill) discuss business in the Guthrie Theater production of Royal Family. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Royal Family, now playing at the Guthrie Theater, is a comedic delight. Rarely does one go to the theatre and laugh so much these days, or hope so eagerly for certain characters to seize the spotlight. It’s smartly directed, visually stylized, and makes you wish that you could see some of the grand dames of the play doing shows in real life.

Ingenue Gwen Cavendish (Victoria Janicki) flirts with Perry Stewart (David Darrow, right). Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Melodramas were going out of style when George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber decided to send up the genre in 1927’s Royal Family. When the play first premiered on Broadway, Kaufman was 10 years into a 12-year stint as the drama editor for the New York Times, with ample material for a play about a whole clan of stage actors seizing every opportunity to overact. Ferber’s contributions are harder to tease out, but one can’t argue with the collaboration’s results.

Like many melodramas, trying to follow or recount the twists and turns of the plot is best left to the viewer. To start with, there are grand, riveting declamations by Elizabeth Franz as Fanny Cavendish, the grand matron of this family of actors; heart-grabbing monologues by Michelle O’Neill as Fanny’s daughter Julie Cavendish; and a whole series of attention-grabbing routines by Matthew Salvidar as her brother Tony Cavendish. Each moment in the play evokes some familiar genre or stereotype, which would be easy to do in a derivative fashion but comes across as great parody. The script is full of zingers and scene-stealing, and stuffed with moments delicious moments that recall classic stage dramas and black-and-white films. There’s a lot of 1920s glamour around this strong ensemble cast, which is clad in a seemingly made-for-newspaper covers parade of costumes by Brenda Abbandandolo.

Star actress Julie Cavendish (Michelle O’Neill) converses with her manager Oscar Wolfe (Shawn Hamilton). Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

An interesting aspect of the design is the prominent and visible use of giant fresnel lighting instruments, which are lowered into and exposed in different acts. (This is a long 3-hour/3-act play, with a 5-minute “stretch break” and a 15-minute intermission.) This is more than mere set decoration: this particular instrumentation gives a very specific visual allusion to the period, which enhances the sense of larger-than-life film and stage characters leaping through the onstage living room. It’s a fine effect, whether it gets credited to lighting designer Bradley King or set designer Marte Ekhougen, and one of many touches that help create the stage-on-stage world.

No prior knowledge of theatre is required to enjoy Royal Family, but this work directed by Rachel Chavkin is a fine-tuned delight of theatrical excess. One’s heart goes out with the in-show talk of a tour – you get the impression that it would be truly spectacular to see.

Royal Family plays at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN through March 19. 

Basil Considine