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Comedy’s staging lacks spark

Feckless Hillyard Philpott hits the road seeking his fortune after accidentally blowing up the local fish plant in his native Jarvis Arm, Nfld.

Unbeknownst to our East Coast ‘hero’ of the play Culture Shock, which opened on Thursday in Red Deer, Hillyard gets picked up by a couple of dim-witted Quebeçois convicts just outside of Montreal. And they proceed to rob a bank while he’s in the driver’s seat of the getaway car.

Yet, like Mr. Bean, Charlie Chaplin’s tramp and other likable rubes, Hillyard lands on his feet and largely escapes repercussions in this latest Central Alberta Theatre production.

That’s not to say that Hillyard is Mr. Bean or the Tramp — a closer comparison might be Bubbles of The Trailer Park Boys.

But frankly, this staging of the Lorne Elliott play in the Nickle Studio, upstairs at the Memorial Centre, could use some of the spark produced by of any of the above characters to wring bigger laughs out of this culture clash comedy.

Despite a seasoned cast, the opening night production, directed by Brian Spencer, seemed lacking in energy and rapid-fire pacing to do full justice to a play written by a stand-up comedian.

While these shortfalls didn’t prevent regular chuckles from erupting from the audience, they really should have been belly laughs.

Hillyard and his father were fairly solidly portrayed by the real-life son-and-father team of Paul and Michael Sutherland, who pulled off the same roles in a successful local production staged seven years ago.

While I didn’t see that show, Paul plays a pretty winning loser in this one.

As Hillyard, he narrates much of the story in coastal dialect, while walking a fine line between portraying wide-eyed naiveté and someone who’s just plain “stunned.”

Michael’s Father Philpott is funniest when tottering on the edge of desperation. He is frustrated by a son who doesn’t know the meaning of COD and constantly sticks him with collect bills for packages and telegrams.

However, Father needs to stop stammering the beginning of his lines, which slows down the repartée. And like all of the actors in this comedy, both Sutherlands can afford to go broader with their characterizations and work on the timing of their punch lines.

There’s no point in burying them.

Culture Shock is a cute comedy that draws on Canadian stereotypes to get laughs — so you have to think over-the-top characters as in The Ron James Show, This Hour Has 22 Minutes or SCTV.

Blaine Newton and Tim Newcomb have made a good start by capturing the Quebec accent to amusing effect as the crooks, brothers Jean and Réjean. They are never funnier than when trying to translate into English antiquated French-Canadian swear words, which for some reason tend to focus on church chalices.

Jim Claggett also has some comic moments as Cyril the mailman, who becomes Born Again when he falls under the influence of Father Luke, who runs the local Miracle Tent and Laundromat.

With such an experienced bunch of local actors and a veteran CAT director, I suspect this version of Culture Shock will ramp up the laughs as the run progresses. It continues to Feb. 2.

lmichelin@reddeeradvocate.com

 
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