Theater / “They really went for it–all the way!” a woman exclaimed in line at the restroom during intermission of Boeing, Boeing at Manoa Valley Theatre. The ladies’ room, in case you don’t know, is a great place to gauge an audience’s reaction partway through a play–especially when the play in question deals with a man juggling three lovers, stewardesses in every sense of the era, but what we more politically correctly refer to now as flight attendants.
Boeing, Boeing is a classic French “bedroom” farce–slamming doors, mistaken-identity groping, absurd plot twists and lots of over-the-top, sexually suggestive, physical comedy–written by Marc Camoletti in 1960 and translated to British English a few years later. Boeing, Boeing’s humor springs from the culturally crossed chemistry of three gorgeous yet insecure women, two mixed-up men and one surly housekeeper.
Part of the burden of producing a 53-year-old play is making its cultural and situational humor relevant to a contemporary audience. Can, and does, it still hold up? In this case, director Elitei Tatafu, Jr. and his team are tasked with helping Hawaii audiences appreciate how very interesting and hilarious it was in 1960 for the French and British to make fun of American and German culture, while marveling at the modern paradox of jet-setting working women who’d really rather be housewives.
Leading man Mathias Maas, as Bernard, the French architect with three fiancées from three different air carriers, unfortunately performs without much accent and nothing in the way of loverboy charm. It’s difficult to see exactly why these power vixens are so smitten. Maas’s Bernard serves mostly to connect the characters together: his fiancées, his housekeeper and his old college friend, Robert, played by Ken Roberts. Roberts spends more time on stage, managing and kissing Bernard’s fiancées, than Bernard does. And that’s great, because Roberts’s charisma and energy are indefatigable, even after leaping around furniture and barricading doors to prevent one woman from discovering another, while inadvertently falling under each woman’s spell.
Shannon Winpenny plays Bertha, the disgruntled woman assigned to keeping all of Bernard’s ladies obliviously sated with offerings of food and uniform décor. Bertha–the favorite among the ladies’ restroom reviewers at intermission that night–changes the set to match the colors of each hostess’s uniform whenever one gal enters and another exits. This happens with increasing speed and frequency as the show progresses. Winpenny is the founder of Laughtrack Theater Company, Honolulu’s go-to for longform improv comedy, and plays her character with exasperated bombast. She exhibits her knack of making magic out of simple gestures and pulled faces.
There is only one stewardess, however, whose drollery can be designated as first class. German stewardess Judith, played by Mackenzie Jahnke, is the last of the cast to appear–and she’s well worth the wait. She embraces the cultural caricature of a German woman without cliché, but with loud, precise, domineering energy. Jahnke’s scenes with Winpenny and Roberts jolt from crooning and caressing one second to shouting defensive diatribes in her merciless accent the next, raising Boeing, Boeing from clever cruise to a sidesplitting soar.
The American and French gals–Dusty Behner and Therese Olival, respectively–play things a little too straight-laced at times. Behner’s Judith does warm up in the second act, when she starts to cuddle up to Robert. Olival’s Jacqueline also elicits her share of laughs, through moments of hot anger and overtly sexual physical bits that require a lot of bending over.
From its pre-show announcements to the very edges of its set, Boeing, Boeing exudes airplane etiquette and atmosphere. Designers and technicians James Davenport, Daniel J. Anteau and Jason Taglianetti blend aeronautic elements into the set, Bernard’s posh bachelor pad. Behner’s neatly cut uniforms (she doubles as the show’s costume designer) match the set’s lavatory-like lamps above doorways and color-coded rotating set pieces, yet the interiors seemed devoid of any French décor elements.
Although Boeing, Boeing’s dialogue and plot implies that France is the world’s best culture, especially when it comes to women and food, the play’s ultimately lacking Frenchness. This is due in part to Maas’s bland Bernard and the set’s missing French design aesthetic. Perhaps showing us humor through French eyes isn’t the ultimate goal, nor does it have to be. As long as we go and laugh, something’s succeeding.
For example, it would have been nice if Tatafu, Jr. had made a bolder choice, giving a character local ethnicity or mannerisms.
In all, Boeing, Boeing’s design concept, along with Jahnke’s outstanding performance, does enough to get this production off the runway and provides an enjoyable world for both audience and cast. But ultimately, it’s a trip without a flight plan that ends without a sure destination–a missed opportunity to give an old bird some new feathers.