BENNINGTON — In 1972, five New York City actors, Eric Peterson, Gary Poe, Paul Falzone, Norrine Sims and Joe Warik, founded Oldcastle Theatre Company. Fifty years later, the company continues to thrive post-pandemic, housed on Main Street in the Bennington Performing Arts Center (BPAC).
Oldcastle has opened its golden anniversary season with a comedic musical two-hander, Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir,” which is described on the playbill as “a fantasia on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins.”
Fantasia is about as accurate as the description goes, given the almost surreal cult status Jenkins attained on the recital circuit as a solo singing artist for about three decades, ending with her death in 1944 at age 76.
Jenkins, an heiress and socialite, and always accompanied by her pianist Cosme McMoon, fancied herself quite the coloratura soprano, holding recitals all over the city as one of the toughest tickets to get, such was the sellout nature of her shows.
Those loyal crowds included such luminaries as Enrico Caruso and Cole Porter, the latter never missing one of Jenkins’ performances. These gatherings, however, were more known for their comedic value, and debates have raged over the years as to whether or not Jenkins could hear the laughter from the audience, or whether her many close devotees strategically distracted the critical noise.
Directed by Oldcastle artistic director Nathan Stith, the production stars one of the company’s longtime favorites, Tim Howard, as Cosme, whose keyboard acumen always has a welcome home on the Bennington stage, and Oldcastle rookie but acting and singing veteran Kaia Monroe as Florence, who does seem oblivious to anything else but her own notions of vocal grandeur.
No question, just a few minutes into the show, that director Stith had his two highly talented actors in prime mid-run form.
Howard, who also directed Oldcastle’s past production of “Big River,” was tasked to narrate the tale from his point of view, and did so with panache and a not-so-understated tongue-in-cheek which kept the audience laughter going back and forth between the two actors. His virtuoso piano playing also provided smooth backdrops to Monroe’s horrendous solos, and his mastery of short, frenetic physical comedy was outdone only by his knowing glances to the audience and hilariously contorted facial expressions.
For her part, Monroe brought the house down so many times as the seemingly unaware and blithely optimistic Jenkins, who for all her naive carrying on, had a way of capturing your heart with empathy. And let it be said: it is decidedly NOT easy to sing poorly by design, but Monroe, who has an exquisite, professionally trained performing voice — wow! — was terrific in her vocal horror show.
The Oldcastle crew excelled yet again. Ken Mooney’s dreamy set design drew “oooh” and “ahhhs” from all present. Lights by Michael Giannitti and sound by Cory Wheat were superb start to finish, and the inimitable Kristine Schlachter’s stage management kept everything flowing in a show where flow was key. David V. Groupe’s technical direction proved skillful and sharp.
Of note and special mention was the costume design of Mooney and costume work of artisan Jennifer Marcoux. Drawn mostly from pictures and descriptions of the outrageous outfits Jenkins would make and then perform in — and I really don’t want to give too much away — so much of the clamor in this production centers on the spectacle of that wardrobe, so Mr. Mooney and Ms. Marcoux, take a bow!
The late, great literary critic Harold Bloom once famously claimed that we always end up forgiving Hamlet for his world collapsing in flames around him, because if we can’t do that much, we can never forgive ourselves for anything.
The genius and poignancy of Temperley’s play echoes this assessment, both in his writing, as well as Monroe’s and Howard’s execution. If you are not on your feet in a standing ovation at the end of this production, please have your pulse checked afterward.
Without question, Oldcastle’s “Souvenir” will stir you in that way; it will make you laugh and will give you chills. And for that matter, I would like to think that those young, idealistic actors who started all this 50 years ago — Peterson, Poe, Falzone, Sims and Warick — would have also been on their feet with cries of “Bravo!”
“Souvenir” by Stephen Temperley, will run through June 26 at the Bennington Performing Arts Center (BPAC), The Home of Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St., Bennington. Masks are required. For tickets, call the box office at 802-447-0564 or visit oldcastletheatre.org/tickets.