“A lot of theaters do this show looking very French 1950s, with lots of pink and gold,” remarked Bag&Baggage artistic director Scott Palmer at Sunday’s talkback post-Parfumerie.
And why wouldn’t they? The title suggests Frenchness, elegance, and putting on airs (wink), and the various rebrands the play has inspired—You’ve Got Mail, She Loves Me, The Shop around the Corner—are certainly warm and schmaltzy enough to countenance a general pink-and-gold glow.
But B&B’s version, taking a textual cue from Miklos Laszlo’s original play set in 1930s Budapest, plays it a little cooler and deeper, not just with an austere and neutral set, but with characters taking a few beats between quips for silent contemplation. Considering that comparatively few of the script’s lines are devoted to perfume or toiletries, and many more are directed at the complexities of business and personal relationships and a frank assessment of life goals, I submit to future producers yet another fresh title for the same fare, complete with a retail pun: “Taking Stock.”
“Wake up! Your life has passed you by!”
“Do you think I’m doing the right thing?…There’s always just a shadow of a doubt.”
When you pass a milestone like, say, yet-another-Christmas, you tend to entertain questions like these, comparing your prior years to the current one and wondering whether you’ve made it to the place you swore last year that you’d reach “by this time next year.” Often, the answer is “no,” or “not quite,” and so the holidays become a time to balance your proverbial books, between your expected and actual performance.
In the micro-climate of the Parfumerie each character undertakes this process as prompted by their individual life events. Shop owner Miklos Hammershchmidt (David Heath) is beset with new stresses: he suspects his wife of cheating, he’s dissatisfied with the pace of his business, and as a Jew, he’s cowering under the broader threat of Nazi rule that plagued the region at the time. He takes his worries out by raging at his employees—especially George Horvath (Joey Copsey), the loyalest and most self-sacrificing member of the crew, who’s struggling with personal problems of his own. Too shy to court a woman, Horvath’s taken a pen-pal whom he’s always claiming he needs to back-burner to focus on work obligations, when really he can’t work up the nerve to meet her in person. He lets off steam by picking on his coworker Amalia Balash (Arianne Jacques), who, unbeknownst to either of them, is his beloved pen-pal (and that’s how we got to You’ve Got Mail.)
The store’s handsomest and least-responsible clerks, Steven Kadar (Andrew Beck) and Ilona Ritter (Leslie Gale), manage to dash out every time there’s trouble, leaving the motherly Miss Molnar to hold down the front counter and the meek Mr. Sipos (Patrick Spike) to collect and judiciously dispense everyone’s secrets. The delivery boy Arpad Novack (Eric St. Cyr) bears the brunt of the group’s confusion. “It reminds me of The Office,” mused an audience member at intermission.
Somewhat—yet impeccably stylish and stylized. B&B, assimilated to generally well-heeled Hillsboro, glories in a kind of highbrow conviviality. Their classically tailored costumes are replete with jaunty hats, camel coats, and other modest, timeless flair. Their set, shelves stacked elegantly with simple brown paper gift boxes and stainless-steel cream jars, would seem right at home in one of Portland’s many newly minted (and witch-hazeled, and sandalwooded) “apothecaries.” Even their dialect is mannered with a slightly retro feel, rushing through the middle of the phrase and clipping the consonants, a la Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn in anything. If it’s supposed to be natural, it fails. But if it’s supposed to be arch, which I’m pretty sure it is—it’s arch enough to hang mistletoe in and kiss smugly under.
But even as the show closes with softly-falling snowflakes while the thirteen ensemble members harmonize a carol, a faint SS-style siren wails in the distance, lending a somber note.
“Is my character Jewish? Does she feel safe leaving the shop alone?” actor Leslie Gale admits wondering, especially considering that the playwright’s family hid their Jewish heritage while living in turn-of-last-century Hungary. Lest the affairs of some perfume clerks seem trivial, we’re reminded that outside (even worldwide?), the stakes are far higher.
All the more reason to make sure we’re living our truth each day, and reassessing our progress each holiday.
Bag&Baggage’s Parfumerie continues through December 23 at the Venetian Theatre in downtown Hillsboro. Ticket and schedule information here.