A Man, A Plan, A Vacuum Cleaner, Havana: a review of the absurdly wonderful Our Man in Havana

by Monika Viktorova

Looking to escape the drab, grey cold outside? Step into the colourful and absurd world of Our Man in Havana, the Varscona Theater Ensemble and Bright Young Things’ production of the novel by Graham Greene, adapted by Clive Francis.

Peppered with bawdy humor and more winks to the audience than I can count, the story follows bumbling, ineffective Wormold, a vacuum salesman that is recruited to be a spy for the British Government. Given no training and driven by the desire to provide for his sixteen-year-old daughter and a loyalty to his only friend, an elderly doctor, Wormold improvises. His hijinks put him in danger more than once, but he good-naturedly tackles his problems with all the stoicism that a proper British man can muster.

Wormold (Ian Leung), his servant (Mark Meer), and British spy Hawthorne (Mathew Hulshof + moustache). Photo courtesy of Marc J. Chalifoux Photography

The wacky comedy of errors keeps a brisk pace, propelled by the compelling chemistry of its central cast. The foursome take on the lion’s task of playing thirty-two different characters between them. Ian Leung anchors the story as Wormold, beleaguered vacuum-salesman-turned-spy. Mathew Hulshof, who dazzles as British agent Hawthorne, German Dr. Hasselbach and a convincing stripper in drag, also answers the question: what if a moustache could become its own character? Mark Meer delivers a stunningly elastic performance, embodying at once the comedic relief of Wormold’s servant and a decidedly darker humor in Sergeant Segura, the Cuban police chief who has a cigarette case made of human skin. Belinda Cornish charms as Wormold’s precocious daughter Mellie, as well as his secretary-turned-partner-in-espionage Beatrice. The actors flit between their roles, transforming from one character to the next with the flick of a light switch, the change of a hat, and the adoption of an accent.

An interrogation. Wormold (Ian Leung) faces Santiago police (Mark Meer and Belinda Cornish). Photo courtesy of Marc J. Chalifoux Photography

Set Designer Chantel Fortin captures the eclectic nature of Havana, transforming the intimate stage with an imposing Spanish façade awash in dreamy blues, turquoises and golds. A disparate collection of set pieces serves as both props and scenery: a cart doubles as a bartop and bank till, mismatched stools become car seats, country club chairs or a dining set. On one end of the stage, a clothesline drapes across, doubling as the walls of a lavatory stall during a particularly effective bit of slapstick. On the other end, a vintage suitcase gapes open to a menagerie of character accoutrements like hats, canes and whiskey glasses, that actors can quickly grab between scenes. Pat Burden’s costume pieces worked in tandem with the set to provide the versatility needed to transform four people into thirty-two. A particularly hard-working feather boa serves as a stripper’s cover up in one scene and anthropomorphizes into a yappy lapdog the next.

Theresa the stripper (Mathew Hulshof), Beatrice (Belinda Cornish) and Wormold (Ian Leung). The feather boa as herself. Photo courtesy of Marc J. Chalifoux Photography.

While an actor donning a robe, a policeman’s hat or a cane brings to life an entirely new character, the dreamy lighting, warm, glowing backgrounds and deftly introduced darkness wielded by Matt Curie create the bookends for scenes. A bright spotlight or a flash of red transport actors who’ve moved barely an inch from the bedroom of a spy to the beaches of Santiago. Paul Morgan Donald smooths transitions and livens each scene with a jaunty, Latin-inspired score and exaggerated sound-effects. The actors, props, music and lighting revolve like the well-oiled mechanisms of a clock under the expert direction of stage manager Rachel Rudd.

Beatrice (Belinda Cornish) and Wormold (Ian Leung). Photo courtesy of Marc J. Chalifoux Photography.

The magic of Our Man In Havana comes from how much it does with so little, a tropical comedy blossoming because of its ensemble’s talent. Its whirlwind tempo, dazzling visuals and ribald jokes create a charming world of absurdity. Let yourself escape into that world, at least for a night.

Catch it at the Varscona from November 23rd to December 2.

Photography courtesy of Marc J. Chalifoux Photography.

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