The village of Kulyenchikov is lost in a magical spell that has left its residents simpletons in Neil Simon's odd fable, 'Fools,' which continues through Feb. 8 at the Woodland Opera House.
The play, directed by Rodger McDonald, is described as 'a comic fable based on the traditional Russian folk tale, 'The Village of Idiots.' '
I can't remember seeing another play that I hated so much in the first five minutes, and the thought of sitting through two entire acts was unpleasant. This wasn't the Neil Simon we know and love. The dumb jokes and repetitive slapstick comedy made me groan. (How many times is forgetting how to open a door funny?)
From the subdued audience response, I assumed other patrons were having the same reaction.
But something happened as the play progressed. I began to chuckle, and soon everyone around me was laughing as well, as we became accustomed to the plot line and grew to know the characters.
McDonald's direction - and the skilled actors, who respected their characters - made them not only believable, but lovable. They were completely immersed in their fantasy stupidity.
The residents of Kulyenchikov literally live in 'blissful ignorance.' They know they're stupid, and have become content with it. It would be nice, for example, even to remember one's name; the shepherdess 'Something-something Snetsky' (Jean Swearingen) knows her last name, but never can remember her first name(s).
Or where she left her sheep.
Of course, none of the villagers really care all that much.
The unwitting outsider to enter this world is Leon Tolchinsky (Ben Moroski), a teacher who has been hired by the town doctor to try teaching his daughter. As it happens, if one person in the town can be taught, the spell will be broken.
Unfortunately, the teacher has only one day to make the attempt; if he can't teach her, then he, too, will come under the town's curse. Many teachers have tried, and all have fled before the end of the 24 hours, to avoid becoming fresh victims of the curse.
Moroski is a lot of fun to watch. As something of a Jon Cryer/Jerry Lewis clone, Moroski is appropriately befuddled at the townspeople, and gradually learns to accept the effects of the curse and adapt to it. But he also falls under the spell of the beautiful Sophia (Angela Read) and decides to stay with her, no matter what.
He's prepared to give up his love of learning, and the pride in his body of knowledge, if that must happen.
But he's also determined to teach her something ... even if Sophia sees no value in learning. Why should she learn that one plus one equals two, if Leon already knows it and can tell her? And why would she need to know in the first place?
Read has a marvelous ethereal demeanor: beautiful but blank, while still engaging enough to win the heart of the idealistic teacher.
Angela's parents, Dr. Zubritsky (Bobby Granger) and his wife Lenya (Shanna Sperry), are delightful, as they try to help each other like any married couple. She loses her train of thought; he tries futilely to guess what she meant to say.
Justin Kelley is great as the villain, Gregor Yousekevitch, who is determined to wed the beautiful Sophia himself. Indeed, he proposes to her every day.
Jessica Neufeld plays Yenchna, a mute who knows a secret that will help Leon. Her charade is just great.
The cast also includes Dan Beard as the Magistrate, Alan Smuda as Slovitch, and Bridget Maguire as Mishkin, the postman who has a special delivery for Leon. It might change everything. Or not.
'Fools' is a surprise: one that grows on you, thanks to the talented cast. If you need a good laugh, this show is highly recommended.