Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Hay Fever
Stanford Repertory Theater

Also see Eddie's review of Life Is a Dream, Patrick's review of Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter and Richard's reviews of Call Me Miss Birds Eye: A Celebration of Ethel Merman and Company

The Cast
An opulent, 1920s country house sits in full grandeur before us, as we enter the Stanford University Pigott Theatre, with its high ceilings and papered walls, plush period furniture and Indian rug, doors of wood and glass leading in all directions, a grand staircase dotted with pictures of family and art, and glimpses of two gardens of richly colored summer flowers in one and roses in the other. Annie Dauber's stunningly sophisticated set created for Stanford Repertory Theater in no way, however, quite prepares us to meet the family of Bliss who occupy its walls and whom Noël Coward created in his much-loved Hay Fever, written surely with smirked tongue in cheek and perhaps just a bit of farcical scorn for the artsy upper classes of his time.

Our Bliss clan consists of a retired actress who has clearly not left the stage too far behind, as she saunters through her daily, carefree life of leisure; her novelist husband who is content mostly to hide away in his secluded study; and their young adult children, a sister and brother who both are full of pretension, high airs, and often pouty demeanors. Casual conversation never happens, it seems, in this household. Every interaction is like a staged performance with more than a tad of purposeful over-acting and one-upping of each other. What can start as a pleasant exchange full of coos and hugs can instantly erupt into a spewing volcano of insults and bitter cries of hurt, only quickly to return to kissy expressions of adoration. We soon see such fireworks among the various family pairings as each announces having invited for the weekend, without any mutual consultation, a guest—in each case an admirer of an age inappropriate for that family member.

As guests arrive, the games begin, with good manners tossed to the wind. New couplings of likened-age pairs begin to occur, and eventually each Bliss decides to fall madly in love with one of the now-in-shock guests. Each boldly announces to once husband, once wife, and/or surprised parent new intentions of marital bonds. An eventual, outside thunderstorm is mild to the lightning flashes that continually and hilariously strike within this 'Bliss-ful' household, all scripted in well-understood and oft-repeated fashion by family members as their own cast show.

As mother Judith Bliss, Courtney Walsh sweeps, glides, dips, and almost flies across the stage in flowered, flowing chiffon dress with whimsy sleeves that trail through the air as she swings arms in high thespian manner. Every phrase is well picked for the effect Judith solicits from whoever is her current audience; and we, her hidden audience, delight in every minute she is on the stage before us. As Simon and Sorel, Austin Caldwell and Kiki Bagger play the spoiled, precocious, and self-centered siblings whose tantrums are at times akin to a three-year-old and whose hungered sex drives are clearly those of a young twenty-something. The quieter (but still capable of his own moment in the Bliss-like spotlight of over-reaction) father David (tall, professor-like Bruce Carlton) is appropriately distracted in finishing his latest novel but just as capable as his family in being rude to visitors and seemingly just as hungry for an amorous adventure.

But not all our laughs and fascination are centered on just the four Blisses, for each visitor opens up for Mr. Coward an avenue to have some fun in portrayal of the London scene of the 1920s. Simon's invited and clearly much older and more worldly Myra (Deb Fink) arrives in red felt hat and smartly tailored suit and proves to be sexily stand-offish with coy smile, cocked head, pursing lips, and teasing eyes—all enough to drive first Simon and later his Dad to total distraction. Andre Amarotico is delightful as Judith's latest stage admirer, Sandy Tyrell—young, awkward, and very pretty in his boyish face—and totally proper in his bow tie and smartly striped jacket. Sandy, it turns out, is easily mustered and shocked by all the Bliss around him, resulting in oft-widened eyes whose whites penetrate in fear and amazement to the rear of the audience. Kathleen Kelso is a rather vapid but sweet flapper named Jackie whom the elder David has attracted to this country haven and who soon finds herself both intrigued by son Simon and overwhelmed by the slinging arrows of wit and insults flung by her hosts. Finally, a rather dull, always diplomatic (by demeanor and by profession) Richard navigates gingerly, first with fascination and later with growing horror, the hubbub around him. He has arrived on the pretense of an illicit weekend with young Sorel and is drawn foolishly into the plans and prowess of her mother Judith. SRT Artistic Director Rush Rehm masters Richard's clumsy and charming manner, especially as he strives ever so hard to stand just so-so next to a piano where Judith entertains him (and mostly herself) with a love song.

Rounding out the cast is Catherine Amarotico as Judith's once-dresser, now all-around house servant who serves with alacrity, love, and grace her family and who ignores in Bliss-like bad manners any and all guests.

Much praise must go also to the amazingly choreographed direction of Lynne Soffer, the period stunning costumes of Connie Strayer, the 1920s musical and very authentic stormy sound backdrops by Brigitte Wittmer, as well as the sunny, cloudy, and stormy lighting designed by Michael Ramsaur.

While most plays an audience ventures to see have within them serious messages and deep meanings of the playwright to convey, Hay Fever clearly exits and continues to be popular in performance for one and only one reason: sheer enjoyment and a chance to forget every current, serious side of the world outside the theater. This goal of being delighted as well as amazed by the entirety of the production is clearly met with Stanford Repertory Theatre's must-see Hay Fever.

Hay Fever continues Thursdays through Sundays until August 9, 2015, at Stanford Repertory Theater's Pigott Theater, 551 Serra Mall (in Memorial Auditorium), Stanford, CA. Information and tickets for this production and Cowardy Custard: A Coward Cabaret (August 13-23) at

Photo: Courtesy Stanford Repertory Theater

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Eddie Reynolds

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