Originality and success are not always the handmaidens of amateur theater and allowances usually need to be made if the audience is to tolerate the shortcomings the pejorative “amateur” usually implies—at least where this audience member is concerned.
But if any of you have similar misgivings about the perils of “amdram,” let the Phnom Penh Players, the city’s long-established rotating cast of amateur thespians, put your mind at rest, as they return to the stage next weekend with a second full-length original performance that will give Broadway board-walkers a run for their money.
It is a follow-up to last year’s hugely successful sell-out “Diplomatic Affairs,” which is once again written by the Players’ own Emma Triller and stars most of the same cast, and though it is not a sequel as such, it promises to serve up the same heady cocktail that created such a stir last time around it left dozens of would-be theatergoers ticketless.
Simply titled “More Diplomatic Affairs,” the action once again centers on the comedy of errors that befall the play’s lead character, the Dickensian-named Henry Titsup, head of administration at an unnamed embassy, for whom things go, well—tits up, of course.
“Henry Titsup is having yet another bad day…in a fast-paced, laugh-a-minute farce that takes you behind the sanctified and politically correct facade at an embassy to show you what really happens when an overworked consular officer and his colleagues struggle to conceal a series of diplomatic disasters,” the summary goes.
There are plenty more plot details to share but it might spoil the surprise, as the real joy in the first outing’s capers was the unpredictable escalation of mishaps—including an uninvited Russian prostitute, a busted toilet, a dead body, a phallic dolphin and even Jesus Christ himself—all unfolding in the stuffy confines of an embassy office.
Ms. Triller is married to Horst Triller, the first secretary of the German Embassy in Phnom Penh, and she insists that she has more than enough outlandish material for a series of plays after spending two decades on the diplomatic treadmill (she has already written a third installment, with a fourth in the works) with most of it requiring only a little embellishment.
“The premise for all the ‘Diplomatic Affairs’ plays is that more of this is true than you will ever guess, so I have to say that many of these events are based on reality, these things actually happened—I just have put them together in a certain way and embellish them and of course hang them on invented characters,” she said.
The 19th century poet Arthur Rimbaud once remarked that “life is the farce which everyone has to perform,” a neat aphorism that points to the enduring appeal of the theatrical genre, which takes recognizably ordinary people and subjects them to slapstick accidents and comical twists of fate that are essentially the other side of the tragedy coin—where humor has the heads up over pity’s tales.
Perhaps it is a way at laughing off the essentially tragic nature of life, or perhaps it is just plain funny to watch characters as they deal with the absurdity life throws at us, but Ms. Triller believes that it only works if the characters are recognizable to the audience.
“While I am trying to deal with the realm of the ridiculous there has to be a grain of truth to make things plausible, without which the humour would be lost, which is why I use my husband to bounce my ideas off, so he can bring my imagination back down to earth and tell me when something wouldn’t happen in real life,” she said.
The greatest collaboration however is between cast and crew, who ultimately bring the script to life and help it evolve and change as they bring their own interpretations and personalities to bear.
“In a farce, there isn’t any significant character development, the characters are just there and are established quite quickly so the comedy comes from the situations and their reactions to those situations,” she said.
“Furthermore, a lot of the physical comedy only develops between the actors as they work together, which is why it’s important to have good actors with a good rapport—that’s certainly something that has developed very well with this bunch of actors, so I count on them to bring that very important element to the play.”
Most of that cast has returned for the second installment, some re-inhabiting the same roles, others new. In the lead role, Monte Achenbach takes over from the departed Tim Johnson as Henry Titsup, and after last year’s boozy antics in the role of the buffoonish attache he promises to bring something altogether different to the character. Jerker Liljestrand is once again playing the consular foil, whose innuendo-filled repartee is the icing on the farcical cake.
Julian Clarke makes a welcome reappearance as the mysterious drunken Jesus, a deadpan lost soul who got some of the biggest laughs in the last outing, while Emily Marquez slips back into the guise of Russian fille de joie Olga Kurvenka, whose provocative visa predicament propelled much of the previous action.
Claire Barker, a Players veteran, is on double duty, co-directing with Ms. Tiller and starring as the ambassador’s wife. Feisty New Zealander Jeanette Robinson also has two jobs to do—as Titsup’s PA and the disembodied voice on the telephone, which is sure to be the harbinger of all manner of absurdity. And the cast will doubtless have fun testing their verbal dexterity with tongue-twisting new character Parvathy Elankulamthekkapaatushetty, a “respected academic” played by Mona Kaul.
“I think what drew me back, really, was that the audience seemed to enjoy it very much and I hope they might enjoy another look at what really goes on in an embassy—it seemed to work,” Ms. Tiller said.
It did, and I’m betting it does this time, too. “More Diplomatic Affairs” is showing Friday October 25 and Saturday October 26 at 7.30 p.m. at the Russian Cultural Centre at the corner of Norodom and Street 222, with proceeds going to local youth NGO SALT’s Mighty Girls program.
For tickets, call 010 990 026