Culture | Enjoying the Company

Players' Theatre modernizes Sondheim's classic

Delving into New York City marriage, Players’ Theatre’s Company, the second play of the season, questions the pitfalls of being simply “company.” The musical follows bachelor Robert as he visits his closest friends, all of them married couples, leading the audience through an exploration of love and relationships in modern times.

Based on a book by George Furth, Company first appeared as eleven one-act plays. This original form shines through in the play’s structure, consisting of multiple vignettes, each featuring a different couple. The play begins with Robert’s 35th birthday party, and unfolds around Robert’s quest to understand himself in relation to his married friends. Company’s short segments effectively provide a window into Robert’s mind as encounters with various married couples shape his perception of the institution and its meaning.

Stephen Sondheim, in a style evocative of his subsequent work such as edgy classic Sweeney Todd, provides swelling music and lyrics, giving the play a certain lightness that helps offset the heavy tone. Although it explores deep emotional issues of loneliness and commitment, Company maintains a humourous tone throughout, often propped up by Sondheim’s sarcastic verse. Director Ben Harris’ Company takes Sondheim’s message to the next level as he endows his production with a charming sassiness. Performances are speckled with smirks and winks, drawing in the audience with playful self-recognition. Harris acknowledges this intention, noting that “sassy” was “one of my key words for this production.” The musical nature of the play, with its jazzy song and dance numbers, which include tap dancing and elaborate group choreographies, provides the cast with multiple avenues to express Sondheim’s tongue-in-cheek humour. Harris notes that Company is unlike most musicals, where the focus tends to be on the songs. “The scenes in this play are really half-dialogue and half-song,” he explains, with each aspect enhancing the other.

Harris stresses the historical context of Company’s original debut in 1970 when the cabaret was the popular musical style. At a time when most playgoers attended the theatre as a distraction, Company, challenging the traditionally simple portrayal of love and marriage, forced them to confront delicate matters at the heart of their personal lives. Harris’ Company lives up to this original intention, presenting questions about romantic relationships that audience members are, for the most part, left to answer for themselves.

The vignette form is key to the appeal of Company, and Harris carries out his role creatively, with each vignette performed in a distinct manner. The actors all have their own particular stage presence, a variety that greatly contributes to the fleshing out of the characters. The choice of Robert as the main character endows Company with a greater focus on the male experience of marriage. Harris’ production seems to shift the focus slightly to the wives as the female characters take on hidden depth. The female characters tend to steal the spotlight through their edgy performances: while the male characters speak openly about their relationships, the women of Company hint at underlying problems with sarcasm and body language.

Although Harris admits that he considers this production “cheesy,” its exploration of self-realization as a first and essential step to finding love, an issue that transcends marriage, makes Harris’ Company charming and universally relevant.

Company will be shown on October 21, 24 to 27 at Players’ Theatre in SSMU. Tickets are $6 for students.

 


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