Monday, December 19, 2011

Theatre Review: Parfumerie

I am fortunate enough to have very artistic friends who are employed by very artistic endeavour. My friend Mike works at Soulpepper Theatre here in Toronto and, as such, I often have the privilege of attending their opening night events (a lot of the time because he's married to Kat, one of my bestest friends). There, I see, well, possibly every Canadian ever and witness some spectacular Torontonian theatre.

Parfumerie was no exception. Based on the play by Miklos Laszlo, Parfumerie is set entirely at a cosmetics store in Budapest in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  There is a familial attachment between all of the workers at the store: borne of their long-standing familiarity with each other and the long hours they spend in the retail atmosphere.  As family, their patriarch is the good-hearted Mr. Hammerschmidt: the owner of the store and the parfumerie's namesake. At the beginning of the play, he is showing signs of wear and stress: culminating in his untimely dismissal of the bright George Asztalos: a clerk Hammerschmidt admits he had once viewed as a son.

While the workers assemble to decorate for Christmas and George prepares to leave a job he has held in senior position for 9 years, we are introduced to the problematic relationship between George and the beautiful; but seemingly prickly  Rosanna (Rosie) Balaz.  George and Rosanna are sworn enemies. They do not see eye-to-eye on even the most minute detail and they fling insults at each other in rapid, machine-gun fashion.  Neither realizes that they have been writing anonymous and passionate love-letters (recalling the intensity of Eloise and Abelard, to note George's repetition of this famous story: in his letters and in conversation) to each other for the past year.  Two people who cannot abide each other's company; are dead certain that they are made for each other on paper.

The action that follows includes the revealing of Hammerschmidt's strained relationship with his wife, his reconciliation with George following a severe misunderstanding, and the effort that George and Rosanna make to better understand each other at work as Christmas approaches.

If this epistolary romantic comedy seems familiar: it is.  Parfumerie has been made into three film adaptations: the closest being The Shop Around the Corner (1940) featuring Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart as Rosie and George, respectively.  A musical version of the story was filmed in 1949 entitled In the Good Old Summertime. Here, Judy Garland and Van Johnston star as rivals at a musical instrument shop who clash in person; but mesh on paper. More recently, the story was re-imagined with a Pride and Prejudice undercurrent in You've Got Mail: updating the premise from the years of letter writing to the new wave of email communication.  In the film, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan play a bookstore tycoon and a children's bookstore owner (of a store called Shop Around the Corner) at constant battle emblemizing the chafing relationship of box bookstore and small "brick and mortar" retailer.

Parfumerie was delightful to watch: an absolute Christmas confection.  As a whole, the Young Centre is an intimate setting: whittled away in Toronto's breathtaking Distillery District which, at this time of year, is home to our European Christmas market.  The spirit of the season is first acknowledged by the sights and sounds and smells of the market and then purveyed on stage through the imagined sights and sounds of a busy and bustling retailer.  The set was gorgeous: playing on chocolate browns and mellow pinks to recall a type of candy-coloured world of rose-petals and beautifully ornamented scents and soaps.  The highlight was the revolving door featured at the front of the shop.  It, and the two large windows of the set, provided windows to well-staged lighting and action: as cyclists and passers-by rustled by and the dim light reflected both snow, sleet and the tinted hues of evening.

On the inside, the store provided the perfect scene for the warm and compelling action unravelled.  While all of the characters were perfectly drawn and wonderfully dressed in period costume (the shoes were to die for), it was the romance between Rosie and George that kept my eyes pealed to the stage.
Stage veteran Oliver Dennis: a sprightly red-head with the same lackadaisical charm of Jimmy Stewart and the breathtakingly pretty Patricia Fagan (whose clipped and period-perfect bob framed her pixie face and bright eyes) had wonderful chemistry.  They came alive when opposite each other and I thoroughly bought into their developing relationship, their softening to each other in person as they reflected on their passionate and abiding devotion on paper.

I am lucky to live in a city with a thriving artistic community and a sprawling theatrical community, at that. To excavate a long-lost play and resurrect it every other year during the holidays ( in intervals between A Christmas Carol) provides audiences with a chance at seeing a sentimental (yet not saccharine) romantic comedy with all of its gusto and charm.   To add to the sights and imagined smells of the Hungarian Parfumerie, we were treated to nationally-appropriate music: a violin and an accordion which ushered the set and lighting changes and subtly changed the scenes.

This was probably my favourite Soulpepper Production to date and I highly encourage Torontonians to seek it out.  I absolutely LOVED it!  Parfumerie  was a critical success in its first run in 2009 and it continues to wow the critics. Read the Globe and Mail review!

Toronto's gorgeous annual European Christmas market in the heart of the historical Distillery district


Laura Frantz said...

Oh, makes me want to go! I love a good production and this looks divine:) Thx for a vicarious peek, Rachel!

Katie said...

Ahh I love this story. I wish I could go!

Unknown said...

This sounds marvelous!

Gina said...

Such a great story. I love "Shop around the Corner" and "She Loves Me," and I like "Good Old Summertime." (Couldn't quite get into "You've Got Mail.") Wish I could have seen this version!