Madcap Forest


Show #78: Nymph o’ Mania, Wily West Productions, July 16.

Ben Ortega and Linda Wang in Nymph o’Mania. Photo by Bill Boice

By Sam Hurwitt

Don’t let the title mislead you. Wily West producing director Morgan Ludlow’s new play Nymph o’Mania isn’t about sex maniacs, although there’s a lot of sex in it. It’s as in “chock full o’ nymphs,” although really there’s only one wood nymph in it. It’s a comedy based loosely on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but only in the sense of mismatched lovers lost in the woods while faerie folk fuck with their heads. The story is otherwise completely different, set in the California redwoods with an eco-conscious theme.

Although the play seems to be set in the present day from its references to Julia Butterfly Hill and whatnot, the cocktail-swilling characters seem left over from a 1930s screwball comedy, at least if you don’t count all the homoeroticism. Elise Barley’s costumes especially have a retro society look to them, right down to the garters holding up Jack’s socks.

The central couple, Jack and Harriet, are due to be married in the morning. Jack’s planning to sell their house and surrounding redwoods to a Japanese logging company over Harriet’s objections. The land has been in Harriet’s family for generations, but her grandfather sold it to Jack. But it gets a little muddy here, because Jack also seemingly grew up there and secretly hates the woods because his mother disappeared into them when he was a kid.

Staying with them are Jack’s childhood chum Claude and his wife Lydia, an ex-Marine who keeps shooting any wildlife she sees. Claude resents Harriet for cutting into his guy time with Jack, and Jack’s poetry-writing brother Stanley is in love with Harriet but has been fooling around with Claude. When a wood nymph who’s been pestering Jack for a while finally coerces him into taking off his clothes and wandering into the woods, everyone else goes in search of him. But Stanley spiked the punch with magic mushrooms, and soon everyone is running around in their underwear, humping in the bushes and having traumatic conversations with their dead parents.

As directed by David Stein, much of the comedy is hampered by overly broad, skit-like delivery, although some of the transparent expository dialogue doesn’t give the cast that much to work with. Ben Ortega shows capable comic delivery as Jack, Andrew Calabrese is nicely animated as the closeted Claude, and Lance Fuller is particularly funny as the pricelessly earnest Stanley. Linda-Ruth Cardozo is scowling and husky-voiced as the butch, pistol-packing Lydia. Harriet identifies as an old maid and constantly obsesses about her wrinkles, which makes comely Kat Kneisel seem miscast in a particularly broad performance because she looks about 20.

Because the impish nymph role is so campily Halloweeny—with glittery makeup, long twiglike claws, bat wings, and leaves and branches drawn all over her skin—it’s nice that Linda Wang gets a chance to branch out a bit in the various forms the nymph takes to string the humans along. She’s very funny as a bemused environmental activist and the voice of Claude’s redneck father. Unfortunately she’s almost completely inaudible as Jack’s murmuring mother, which is a shame because it’s the only one of several visitations from departed relatives that really seems relevant.

Quinn J. Whitaker’s interesting set evokes an interior with crumpled paperlike pages hanging from chicken wire and becomes a more conventional forest when the cast carries in bits of foliage. Kat Downs’s sound design provides the chirping of tree frogs, buzzing sounds when the nymph zaps Jack with her magic nymph powers, and party sounds whenever someone happens to remember that there’s a party going on nearby.

Stage Werx’s basement black-box space does get stuffy, and I had the dubious fortune of sitting too near a small claque of gents intimately involved in the production who guffawed heartily to get the audience in the mood like a sitcom laugh track. The resolution is a bit clunky, and having everyone on hallucinogens through the whole play provides Ludlow with a convenient out, because he can easily say that it was all just a dream—or was it? (“If we shadows have offended,” and all that.) Despite all that, this very silly play does have its moments. There’s a clever, affecting scene between Claude and Lydia, and the comedy becomes so over the top in the second act that you can’t help but chuckle.  Ultimately it’s a pleasant bit of fluff that’s entertaining enough when it stops trying so hard to sell itself.

Nymph o’ Mania plays through August 14 at Stage Werx, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco.

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