Playwright Mark Richard’s five adaptations of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves/Bertie Wooster stories are fondly called, by him, the “Bertiead,” a wink to The Iliad. And like the at-odds main characters of that ancient Greek epic, Agamemnon and Achilles, the glue that holds the Wodehouse stories together is the relationship between the proper English gentleman Bertie Wooster and the butler who always keeps him in check, Jeeves.
During the past 12 seasons, Stage West has done all five of these plays, and fittingly, to close its 2012-13 season, returns to the first one they produced back in 2001, Thank You, Jeeves. (The others are Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, The Code of the Woosters, Jeeves in the Morning and Right Ho, Jeeves.) It’s directed by Stage West co-founder Jerry Russell, who became ill in the third week of rehearsals and is still in critical but stable condition at Harris Methodist Hopsital.
This time, Mark Shum, who has performed in various roles in the other Jeeves plays, takes on the role of Bertie, the fourth actor to play him in this series. But the one constant in these shows over a dozen or so years has been longtime Stage West fixture Jim Covault, who has, with proper posture and a naturally pursed lip, perfectly embodied the butler who has become synonymous with decorum and no-fuss problem-solving.
Going back to the Iliad metaphor, think of the image of Achilles with his lyre, and now picture Bertie with his banjolele, a banjo/ukulele hybrid. That one device — Bertie insisting that he play this instrument that he clearly has no talent for — sets up the plot of Thank You, Jeeves. Like a neighbor who will not put up with the garage band rehearsal next door, Jeeves decides to abandon his employer — but veddy properly, natch.
He might be able to put up with idiocy all around him, but bad musicianship on an absurd instrument? No.
This leads Jeeves to take employment with Wooster’s rival Lord “Chuffy” Chufnell (Brandon Burrell), and of course there’s a love triangle, of sorts, between Bertie, Chuffy and Bertie’s ex-fiancee, American Pauline Stoker (Lee Jamison).
The brilliance of the Jeeves/Bertie conundrums is that, while they aspire to be as outrageous as the ones Lucy and Ethel would famously become embroiled in, Bertie can always go to the limits of lunacy that being a proper English gentleman will allow, and Jeeves, without really saying much, can solve them and never come off as taking the credit for said deed. It’s just another day in their world.
Covault has always played this role to a T, responding to every bit of dialogue from Bertie with a simple phrase that always ends with a slight inflection of “suh” (as in “sir”). His stone face and vocal delivery are deadpan at its deadpaniest. Shum, rather brilliantly, doesn’t resort to the kinds of (relative) hysterics that some of his predecessors have, coming off as the most even-keeled of the Berties. It’s a perfect yin-yang relationship.
Russell made some interesting casting choices this time, and the choice of Burrell is a terrific one. A line about him having a “damask cheek” (a term from Shakespeare’ Twelfth Night and meaning “healthy complexion”) serves the choice well, and Burrell is amusing. Jamison has some funny moments as Pauline, but the New York accent is a bit too much. Dennis Maher and Cliff Stephens are standouts in smaller roles. Costume design by Michael Robinson hits the mark of the era and characters.
It’s doubtful that Stage West will ever abandon this popular series, but should that happen, we’ll happily keep the Shum/Covault dynamic as a lasting memory.