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Wordplay and funny fisticuffs highlight "Jeeves Intervenes" at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre
Monty Python didn’t invent the upper-class Brit twit. That honor goes to P.G. Wodehouse with his man-about-town Bertie Wooster.
Wodehouse was a humorist, novelist, short-story writer, Broadway lyricist (teaming with composer Jerome Kern), and man about town in the 1920s when he created Bertie. But he didn’t leave his inept creation without support, because he also created a witty man’s man, the very epitome of the valet, Reginald Jeeves, but always called just Jeeves.
Ann Arbor Civic Theatre will take audiences back to Wodehouse’s fanciful, upper crusty London of the 1920s when it presents Margaret Raether’s stage adaptation of Wodehouse in Jeeves Intervenes, March 12-15 at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the University of Michigan North Campus.
Director Andy Jentzen said it was Wodehouse’s playful use of language and a BBC series that got him interested in Jeeves and Wooster.
“I’d like to say I read a lot of the books, but what got me going was I watched the [Jeeves and Wooster] show on PBS with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie,” Jentzen said. “I got hooked on the series and really enjoyed the humor and the whole British thing. I did research on P.G. Wodehouse and he had a very interesting way of writing and the way he used words and his own invented words.”
Jentzen said he wanted to do a staging of one of Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, but couldn’t find a script that featured both Jeeves and the hapless Wooster until he discovered a Jackson community theater was doing Raether’s play. He got in touch with the production’s director, Veronica Long, to get a copy of the script.
“Margaret Raether has taken these Jeeves stories and turned them into a combination of the playwright and Wodehouse,” Jentzen said.
The plot is classic Wodehouse. Wooster and his friend Eustace Bassington-Bassington collude against meddling relatives, especially Bertie’s Aunt Agatha, to save Bertie from the horrors of marriage and Bassy from going to India and working in the jute trade. Of course, they bungle the whole thing and have to be rescued by someone with a lot more intelligence than the two of them combined, Jeeves.
“Jeeves is played by Rory Quist and his job is to keep Bertie from getting married, because if Bertie gets married, Jeeves loses his job,” Jentzen said. “Jeeves is over it all, he’s the one with the brain. As one character says, ‘I’ve come to see him, Bertie, not you, he solves the problems.’ The whole basis of the story is that Bertie gets into incredibly complex situations and Jeeves is the one who gets him out of it, and it’s very funny. It’s all very well done, pretty much high stakes all the time and you don’t really know how it’s going to work out.”
Sean Magill plays Bertie Wooster.
“He came in and knew exactly what this was about,” Jentzen said. “Everyone says you’re taking a risk if you’re doing accents in a community theater and I kind of go, ‘But that’s the fun of it. Yes, it’s a risk but that’s the fun and, honestly, maybe one percent of the audience would know the difference between a south London accent and a north London accent.”
Jentzen said there are apps that help give his cast the sound and proper wording for the 1920s period.
“We are also aided by Raether’s notes on how to speak,” he said. “It should be crisp and the pacing should be brisk.”
The characters all have very telling names. In addition to Jeeves, Bertie, and Bassy there are Agatha Spencer-Gregson, Bertie’s meddlesome aunt; Gertrude Winklesworth-Bode, described as a strong-minded young lady with a penchant for Nietsche who wants to marry Bertie; and Sir Rupert Watlington-Pipps, a former military man who wants his nephew Bassy to go to India.
“All the characters are pretty fantastic, especially Aunt Agatha, a character Jeeves describes as ‘a woman who wears barbed wire next to her skin.’ And that’s another thing about Wodehouse, he’s very descriptive and he makes his own set of words,” Jentzen said. “He describes how Aunt Agatha has traveled in Africa once and natives describe how she would not leave her post to make 'oompus bumpus.'”
Ann Stoner plays the meddling aunt, Ryan Mauritz plays Bassy, and Chris Martin plays Bassy’s uncle, Sir Rupert. Veronica Long, who performed in and directed the production in Jackson, plays Gertie.
While Wodehouse was noted for his witty language, the play also includes a lot of physical comedy as well.
“I like that there is more physical humor in this than in other shows with British high-brow humor, like Noel Coward is always about one guy having all the punch lines,” Jentzen said.
A lot of the rough and tumble involves the inept fighting between Bertie and Bassy. David Melcher was called in as a fight coach.
“It’s a lot of physical comedy. But it’s really about two guys who haven’t had a lot of experience working their way through the world. Melcher gave me a lot of good fight scenes where two men fight but have no idea what they're doing,” Jentzen said.
The play takes place in 1926, in Bertie’s posh London flat as designed by Russ Rogers. The style is the Art Deco that was all the rage.
“We’re trying to create opulence on a very small budget, but I think we’ve done it,” said Jentzen. “Paul Bianchi, the producer, has also been finding props and found really good period pieces. There will be a lot of wacky things on stage because Bertie is a young man who collects things, so don’t be surprised by what you see. He also likes his drinks, so we have the valet make a lot of different concoctions.”
Jentzen said Wodehouse’s stories may be set in the 1920s, but it’s his own fanciful take on the 1920s and isn’t concerned with politics or issues of the day. The Wodehouse world of the much smarter servant, the hopeless twit playboy, the clueless disregard for the world around them is not bound by time or place, so Wodehouse’s humor never grows old.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently the managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
Ann Arbor Civic Theatre presents Margaret Raether’s “Jeeves Intervenes” at 7:30 pm on Thursday, March 12, at 8 pm on Friday and Saturday March 13 and 14, and at 2 pm on Sunday, March 15, at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the North Campus of the University of Michigan. For tickets, call 734-971-2228 or visit a2ct.org.