Story: Leon Tolchinksky arrives in Kulyenchikov with his luggage and a heart full of optimism. He is the new teacher in the tiny hamlet located somewhere in Ukraine, circa late 19th century. His fervor begins to erode, though, when he meets the people of Kulyenchikov. They seem pleasant enough, but unfortunately they make no sense at all. In fact, they sound uniformly foolish and stupid.
Snetsky the shepherd doesn’t know her first or middle names, while Yenchna the vendor sells items that are not what she thinks they are, such as flowers she calls fish. Mishkin the postman, Slovitch the butcher and Kupchik the magistrate all add to the daily confusion, but they do manage to direct Tolchinksky to the home of Dr. and Mrs. Zubritsky.
Their daughter Sophia is to be taught by Leon. Her beauty instantly inspires him, but her lack of thinking quickly depresses him about his condition. He does learn, however, that there is a reason for this village-wide idiocy: A curse placed on the town two centuries earlier by Vladimir Yousekevitch, whose son committed suicide after being spurned by the parents of the young woman he loved, who also was named Sophia Zubritsky.
The only ways to break the curse are to educate the current Sophia or get her to marry a Yousekevitch, represented at this time by the villainous Count Gregor. Leon must educate Sophia within 24 hours or he, too, will become a fool. It’s a daunting challenge. Is our intrepid hero up to the task?
Highlights: According to Wikipedia, Neil Simon penned this two-act comedy with the intention of having it flop on Broadway so as to minimize a court-ordered payment to his ex-wife as part of divorce proceedings. If that’s true, he succeeded, because Fools closed in 1981 after just 40 performances.
On the other hand, he failed in that Fools is a witty, charming and entertaining excursion into a land of absurdity, something director Jason Cannon understands precisely as he guides his enthusiastic cast through two hours of merriment and upbeat madness.
Other Info: Just as Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote about the fools who populated the mythical village of Chelm, Simon’s Kulyenchikov is a place where wisdom can result at the unlikeliest of moments. This fanciful land is amusingly depicted in Kevin Shaw’s whimsical scenic design, which utilizes an array of primary colors and Lego-style construction that belies the dull gray matter of the denizens, allowing for different scenes with judicious maneuvering of the set by its players, all illuminated effectively by Shaw’s lighting design.
Laura Light’s props provide their own amusement, such as a ‘pig’ that Yenchna mistakes for a cow or the staff of the misguided Snetsky. So does Katherine Guzzi’s sound design, which includes pleasant instrumental folk music as well as a sound repeated at every mention of the word Kulyenchikov, something that eventually becomes tedious. Add costumes designed by Laura Cook that give the appearance of a 19th century Russian village and you’re all set for entertainment.
Some delightful performances embellish the presentation, which Cannon keeps moving at a brisk and engaging pace. Natalie Sannes as Sophia lights the auditorium with wide-eyed wonder and winning smile as well as pinpoint delivery of some of the comedy’s best lines. She works blissfully well with Blane Pressler as the exasperated but smitten teacher Leon, who nobly plays ‘straight man’ for many of the show’s clever word plays. Pressler does have an unfortunate penchant, however, for often going over the top in Leon’s reactions to developments.
Sabra Sellers in a gray wig can’t convincingly sell the fact that she’s Sannes’ mother as Mrs. Zubritsky, but she demonstrates expert comic timing and a broad approach to her character in the grand tradition of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. Cannon also fails to realistically look the part of a middle-aged man, but he knows how to deliver funny lines with a deadpan expression that enhances their impact.
Rachel Collins shines in the relatively small role of Snetsky, bringing an appealing portrayal to her character’s comic moments, as does Kelly Campbell as the enterprising Yenchna, a frustrated widow with an eye and a hand for Leon. John Craig is the magistrate whose job is to inform villagers about the two times each day when Count Gregor proposes to Sophia, and Benjamin Wegner has fun as Gregor, a villain who wants to be loved by the audience. Lynn McFarland does well as the forgetful postman, Mishkin.
Speaking of love, that’s something else the villagers don’t have in this fractured fable, a plot device that Simon taps into for a satisfying conclusion. There are problems in the script, though, including the fact that Sophia often sounds more like an idiot savant than a dunderhead.
Even with its inconsistencies, Fools is a fun-filled excursion to a mysterious land that lends itself well to Ozark Actors Theatre’s summer of “Fairy Tales and Fables.”
Company: Ozark Actors Theatre
Venue: Cedar Street Playhouse, 701 North Cedar, Rolla, MO
Dates: July 18, 19, 20, 21
Tickets: $12-$20; contact 573-364-9523 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jason Cannon